LONDON- The number of overseas students at English universities has fallen for the first time in nearly 30 years as students choose the United States and Australia instead due to tougher visa rules and higher fees, research showed today.

Numbers fell to 307,205 in 2012 from 311,800 in 2011, the first drop in 29 years, analysis by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) showed, despite foreign student numbers rising in other countries.

The data is a concern for the 73-billion-pound ($121-billion) higher education sector, with international and EU students making up 30 percent of full-time university entrants, worth 10.7 billion pounds a year in fees and other spending.

HEFCE data showed higher education accounted for 2.8 percent of UK GDP in 2011 and almost 760,000 jobs.

Stricter visa regulations, imposed as Britain tries to curb immigration, and higher tuition fees in England explained the drop, HEFCE said.

Chief Executive Madeleine Atkins called for more research to establish the risks this downturn may pose to the financial positions of English universities and any wider impact. "Supporting high-quality international education is a crucial part of ensuring that the UK continues to engage with, and benefit from, the increasingly interconnected world," Atkins said in a statement.

The data showed the number of EU undergraduates fell by almost a quarter in one year, to 17,890 in 2012/13. This was blamed on annual tuition fees almost tripling to 9,000 pounds in 2012, a change that affected both UK and EU students.

The HEFCE found the number of students from India and Pakistan has halved since 2010 to about 13,000 as foreign students are also deterred by stricter visa regulations.