Tony Blair's target for overseas student recruitment has been reached a year early thanks to a record rise in numbers last year.
The numbers of students from non-European Union countries rose by 23 per cent in 2002-03 compared with 8 per cent growth in each of the previous three years, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
UK universities recruited 32,000 more students last year, bringing the total number of overseas students to 174,575.
It means the recruitment target - the Prime Minister's Initiative - of an extra 50,000 overseas students by 2004-05, set three years ago, has already been achieved.
The extra students are worth an estimated £500 million to the UK economy, including millions in fees to universities and colleges. The overseas market is estimated to be worth £1 billion a year in fees to institutions and £8 billion a year to the UK economy.
Speculation that universities are planning to increase overseas student numbers further to help plug funding gaps has been dismissed by some of the top recruiting institutions.
Christine Humphries, director of the international office at Nottingham University, the UK's biggest overseas recruiter, with 4,240 international students in 2002-03 worth about £40 million a year, said: "It's true that the fee income is a significant contribution to our budget, but we would resist any short-sighted approach to recruitment. It is part of our agenda for internationalisation."
A spokesman for Warwick University, which has 3,890 overseas students bringing in about £ million a year, said: "It's important for us to be an international university, so we would have been doing this anyway, even if there wasn't a funding crisis."
The British Council attributed the record rise, in part, to a higher than expected rise in demand for places from new developing markets such as China, up 80 per cent to 31,928 students, and India, up 82 per cent to 10,899.
Significant growth has also occurred in non-traditional markets such as Nigeria (up 41 per cent), Ghana (up 40 per cent), and Bangladesh (a 66 per cent rise).
David Green, director-general of the British Council, which recently called for a doubling of its PMI budget to back a successor strategy, said: "This work must continue. It is a rapidly changing market, and the UK must plan ahead to keep pace."
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