IN Mandarin Chinese they call them sea turtles: those who went abroad to study and have returned home. On a recent Friday night, in Shanghai's URBN hotel, about 100 of these sea turtles, returned Chinese alumni from Irish education institutions, joined celebrations for two of Ireland's most successful exports to China in recent years, higher education and food, with a visiting delegation from Ireland.
It was an opportunity to enjoy the craic, renew links and strengthen ties in a world that has become a global village, where a business decision taken in Shanghai could lengthen or shorten a dole queue in Ireland.
These 100 sea turtles are small but very valuable specks in the ocean of international students who leave their home country for their third- and fourth-level education. Two obvious attractions of Ireland are that it is English-speaking and in the EU.
Last year international students were worth an estimated €700m to the economy, including €230m in tuition fees.
Every 100 international students are estimated to support the creation of 15 local jobs, through spending on tuition, accommodation and other living expenses.
Their longer-term value maybe even higher.
Today's foreign students are the business leaders, entrepreneurs and decision-makers of tomorrow; in their midst, perhaps, a CEO of a multinational whose fond memories of Ireland sway a decision to set up its EU headquarters here.
Ireland has been slow to cash in on this market but the pace is quickening.
While one delegation was in China last month, India was also receiving Ireland's largest ever education mission, hoping to boost our share of the 200,000 Indian students who travel overseas ever year. At present, we have only about 900 of those.
Today, junior minister Ciaran Cannon and representatives of 13 higher education institutions are heading to a new frontier, Vietnam, to sell the message of Ireland the educator, and from there on to Malaysia. Research by the Irish Independent has shown how the revenue derived from full-time international students, of whom there are about 9,000 in Irish universities, has risen from €72.6m for 2007/08 to about €105m in 2011/12.
Americans remain the largest cohort of foreign student at our universities, with 2,439 travelling here this year.
Chinese student figures have jumped by 28.3pc in the past five years to make it number two, and the third most popular country of origin is Malaysia, followed by Canada and India.
Records obtained under Freedom of Information rules reveal that UCD has the highest number of international students, at 2,620, with revenues up by €9.6m to €31.8m over the past four years.