Linacre College will not change its name after Vietnamese billionaire fails to deliver £155million
Sunday Telegraph — 24 September 2023
By Louisa Clarence-Smith
A plan to rename an Oxford college after a Vietnamese "bikini airline" tycoon has been dropped after a £155million donation failed to materialise, the Sunday Telegraph understands. Linacre College announced almost two years ago that after receiving the "transformative donation" from Sovico Group, it would change its name to Thao College, after the company's chairman, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao. However, it is understood that alumni have been told that the college no longer expects to receive the funds owing to restrictions imposed by the Vietnamese government on outward donations. Instead, sources said that Ms Thao, 53, is in talks about donating funds to the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam, where scientists research infectious diseases.
Alumni of the college have raised concerns about whether appropriate due diligence was carried out before the agreement was made to honour the tycoon who founded VietJet, a budget airline which has been ned for having bikini-clad air hostesses on flights. Ms Thao was born in 1970 in Hanoi, north Vietnam. She began to build her fortune at age 21 while studying in Moscow, where she began importing fax machines, plastic and rubber into the then Soviet Union. In 2007, she launched VietJet Air, which became known as the "bikini airline" after it ran an advertising campaign featuring bikini-clad ight attendants. A decade later, she took the company public and in doing so became south-east Asia's only female billionaire.
The original memorandum of understanding, inked in front of Vietnam's prime minister, coincided with a push by the Vietnamese government to attract more foreign direct investment. In Oxford, the agreement was heralded as the start of a new era of "financial security" for one of the university's poorer colleges. Ms Thao said at the time:
"I believe that Oxford is the right place to make my longtime desire to contribute to humanity through education, training and research come true."
But there was a backlash against the proposed rebrand of the college, which is named after the 15th century renaissance scholar Thomas Linacre. Questions were raised about why Ms Thao wanted to take millions out of Vietnam. "We need money," Pham Quy Tho, the former dean of public policy at Vietnam's Academy of Policy and Development, told Nikkei Asia. He said "nobody could understand where" the money was going.
Sir Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP and chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, raised the alarm in the House of Commons the summer after the agreement was signed, asking former universities minister Michelle Donelan whether she shared concerns about a donation being made
"on condition that the name of the college is changed to that of the chairwoman of this company that is extremely close to [Vietnam's] communist government".
An investigation was launched, but a Department for Education spokesperson said officials had been reassured by the college's due diligence. Further concerns were raised months later, when The Telegraph revealed that the first £50 million tranche of the donation had not arrived, months after an agreed deadline of June 30, 2022. The college's principal, Dr Nick Leimu-Brown, travelled to Vietnam at the end of September last year in an attempt to secure the deal.
As recently as June this year, an Oxford University spokesperson told Bloomberg that the deal was still on. However, sources familiar with the negotiation said that the planned donation was firmly "on hold", suggesting that the college had got "caught up" in restrictions on capital outflows. The US Department of State advises that the Vietnamese government
"does not have a clear mechanism to promote or incentivise outward investment",
"domestic investors wishing to invest abroad face a number of procedural regulations".
A source familiar with the agreement said the college said that senior gures in the college now conceded that they may have been "naive".
One alumnus of the college, said that alumni are pleased that the name change has been dropped, for now.
"The donor insisted on a complete name change which some felt could not therefore be an altruistic gift,"
"There is a concern about the due diligence process undertaken and its failure to protect the college against a deal gone wrong. Some are happy that the funds are going to a medical centre in a poorer country. At least it is not all for nought."