British universities recruited a record 141,000 overseas students this year, which added about £1.5 billion in tuition fees to their coffers.
Total numbers were up by nearly 17,000, or 12 per cent, on last year, which in turn saw a 6 per cent rise on the year before, according to a British Council analysis of statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency released this week.
China sent 71 per cent more students to the UK, India 37 per cent and Nigeria 23 per cent.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said there had been considerable investment over a number of years in international activities.
A recent UUK report found that total off-campus expenditure of overseas students attending UK universities in 2000 was estimated at £1.3 billion.
"The money from international student fees is important as universities seek to diversify their sources of income," Baroness Warwick said.
Andrew Lee, head of Hull University's international office, said universities were increasingly relying on funds from international students as income from government sources declined. Hull has taken 100 per cent more students from Nigeria over the past two years.
He said: "Growth of international students broadens the perspective of both the student and the local community but we must remember that these markets can be very volatile."
Neil Kemp, director of promotions at the British Council, said countries such as China had a huge level of unsatisfied demand for university-level education.
The most popular courses for international students are business and administrative studies, engineering and information technology - courses that have struggled to make up numbers from home students.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge said the UK was one of the best places for international students to study, and that the figures reflected the success of efforts to attract interest from overseas.
Ms Hodge said: "The international students benefit from a world-class educational experience, and we benefit from greater diversity in our institutions and the opportunity to develop long-term trade, political and cultural links overseas."
The British Council attributed part of the growth to the success of prime minister Tony Blair's overseas recruitment initiative, a global marketing campaign that began three years ago with a package of measures to make it easier for overseas students to study in the UK.
Mr Kemp said Britain appeared to be increasing its market share of international students, although direct comparisons with the US and Australia would not be possible until later in the year when these countries released their figures.
There was also a September 11 factor, he added, as the US had tightened visa restrictions.
In contrast, the Hesa figures show that the number of European Union students fell by 9 per cent this year compared with last.
The British Council analysis shows the number of Greek students coming to Britain fell by 19 per cent, French and German students by about 4 per cent and Swedish students by 7 per cent.
It says a number of factors are causing the decline, including the relatively high cost of living in the UK and the growth in provision in other European countries.
The figures are provisional estimates for enrolments in 2001-02 compiled by Hesa and analysed by the British Council.