The poll of 200 overseas students from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian and Strathclyde universities found 45% of those from China would be more reluctant to come to Scotland in the event of a Yes vote.
Only 11% of Chinese students said they would be more likely to come to university in an independent Scotland, with the rest saying the issue made no difference.
The issue is important because the fees paid by overseas students are a vital source of income to Scottish universities.
The number of students coming from China is crucial after a decline in those coming from Pakistan and India.
Although a majority would either be unaffected or would be more likely to come in the event of independence, the survey highlights crucial issues about the marketing of Scottish higher education in future.
Students who took part often associated Scotland with its landscape as well as traditional images of kilts and bagpipes, but not necessarily its education system.
One student said: "Scotland has the skirts for males with beautiful scenery. England is the main part of the UK."
Yajun Deng, the author of the study and a postgraduate journalism student at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "The attitudes of the students are very similar to the debate in Scotland about independence.
"But the difference is the students can decide not to come here with a click of their computer, so the loss is immediate.
"International students are very important to Scottish universities and they are planning to expand this market so a decline like this would be very serious."
The study mirrors research earlier this year by the British Council, which concluded there was poor international awareness of what Scottish higher education had to offer.
It found: "There was a general lack of knowledge about Scottish higher education, the Scottish distinctive identity, the differences in higher education provision in Scotland compared with the rest of the UK and the sector's comparative advantages."
A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said there could be advantages to promoting Scottish higher education as a distinctive entity.
She said: "The approach to learning is and always has been different in Scotland - broader and more inclusive - and our commitment to research is arguably deeper.
"A great strength of our sector is the distinctiveness of different institutions and there is a risk that could be compromised if we promote the sector with just one message, but that does not stop the sector working together on international promotion where it makes sense."
A Scottish Government spokesman said the reputation of Scottish higher education was well known, with five universities in the world's top 200.
He said that the British Council analysis had highlighted that the learning satisfaction of international students in Scotland was better than that for the rest of the UK.
"That, he added, was "a position we would seek to enhance with the full levers that independence would provide."