University vice-chancellors have accused ministers of stoking up "public paranoia" over immigration to get re-elected.
Professor Sir Christopher Snowdon, president of Universities UK - the body which represents university vice-chancellors, told his annual conference at Leicester University they had "increased the anxiety on behalf of the public with respect to students".
The result could mean plans to increase the number of international students studying in the UK by 50,000 over the next decade could be jeopardised as they perceive they will be unwelcome when they arrive in the UK.
"As we approach the election, we can probably expect more discussion about visas and the likelihood of proposals for further restrictions, reflecting the public paranoia over immigration," he added.
"We have got to keep the pressure up to prevent further restrictions from being introduced. It is simply not good enough for the Government to say that there is no 'cap' on international student numbers.
"An important part of our efforts need to be directed towards increasing public understanding of the value of international students and misconceptions about immigration … They are a huge benefit to the UK and this deliberate misrepresentation of them as representing a burden on society needs to be dispelled once and for all."
He concluded: "We need to continue to get the wider UK government and public to recognise our international students are the next generation of potential politicians and business leaders, on which this country will depend for its commerce - rather than as 'immigrants' and a statistic to be used as a political football."
His comments echoed a claim made earlier in the conference by Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of Hertfordshire University, who said: "We do have an issue not just in the universities but in the whole of the UK of having essentially quite a zenophobic population."
He was speaking after Business Secretary Vince Cable, addressing the conference, urged vice-chancellors to recruit more international students. "If we have 50,000 more overseas students in the next five to ten years, that would be a great achievement," he said."I encourage you to pursue that."
However, he acknowledged that immigration was "a pretty toxic issue". He said it was "absolutely right" that the Government should stamp out abuses and seek to control immigration but added: "There are a lot of people who come into this country that add value to it.
"We have to make a case on economic grounds that this is valuable."
Figures show that overseas students already contribute around £17 billion a year to the UK economy through their spending.
Earlier in his speech, Professor Snowdon called on ministers to consider index-linking student fees - so they could rise with inflation in the same way as Labour's original top-up fees of £3,000 a year had done.
"Universities will wish to make clear that by mid-2015, the £9,000 fee established in 2011 will be worth £8,250 at current RPI/CPI inflation levels," he said. This would reduce universities' capacity for future investment.
An alternative to index linking would be increased capital funding for teaching and research.