First £50m promised by Vietnamese tycoon has not arrived, prompting fears she could ditch deal
By Camilla Turner, Chief Political Correspondent
Sunday Telegraph – 9 October 2022
PLANS to rename an Oxford college after a Vietnamese "bikini airline" tycoon in exchange for a £155 million donation are in doubt after the first instalment of cash did not arrive. Linacre College announced last year that after receiving the "landmark gift" from Sovico Group, it would change its name to Thao College, after the group's chairman Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao. But the Sunday Telegraph has learned the first £50million – which was due to have been paid to the college by June 30 - has not arrived. It comes amid speculation that negative publicity and doubts over whether the name change will go through has led to Ms Thao getting cold feet. The college's principal, bursar and development director travelled to Vietnam at the end of September in an attempt to secure the deal.
"If she doesn't get the name change, she could pull out,"
a source said, adding the
"doubt over the name change and the adverse publicity"
is the most likely reason for the delay in the funds.
Earlier this year, the Government launched an investigation into the donation, after Dr Julian Lewis, the Conserv- ative MP for New Forest East, warned in the Commons that Ms Thao is
"extremely close to the Vietnamese communist government".
But the investigation has now been closed, with Department for Education (DfE) officials praising the level of due diligence undertaken by the college. In order for the college name to be changed it must be approved by the Privy Council. Linacre College alumni have launched a campaign to prevent the name change, arguing that it sends a message British universities are "for sale to the highest bidder".
Dr Lewis, a member of the Privy Council, is urging the body to block the name change. He told the Commons:
"If we want to clean up the dirty money and dodgy donations in this country, that would be a good place to start."
Mr Lewis, who is chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee but speaking in a personal capacity, explained:
"Whereas the college can accept the money whether the Government likes it or not, the college cannot change its name without Privy Council permission. Only the Privy Council has the power to intervene effectively."
The formal agreement between Linacre College and Ms Thao states the college will "use reasonable endeavours" to change its name by Sept 2023 after it receives the first £50million. But it notes that this is "subject to the College receiving prior Privy Council consent".
Ms Thao began to build her fortune at 21 while studying at university in Moscow, by importing fax machines, plastic and rubber into the then Soviet Union. In 2007, she launched VietJet Air as the country's first privately run low-cost airline. It became known as the "bikini airline" after an ad campaign featuring bikini-clad flight attendants.
A spokesman for Linacre said:
"We are working with Sovico and their financial advisers to develop processes for the transfer of funds that are transparent, auditable and meet with all the legal requirements of both UK and Vietnamese governments. A DfE spokesman said: "We have already tabled an amendment that addresses the legitimate concerns over the influence of foreign money in higher education, without stifling the ability of our world-class universities to work with global partners."
At the time of announcing the donation, Ms Thao said:
"I believe that Oxford is the right place to make my long-time desire to contribute to humanity through education, training and research come true."
* * *
'PLANS TO RENAME OXFORD COLLEGE AFTER A VIETNAMESE BILLIONAIRESS IN EXCHANGE FOR £155M DONATION "ARE IN DOUBT AFTER FIRST £50M DID NOT ARRIVE" '
Mail Online – 10 October 2022
- • Linacre College may become Thao College after a billionairess pledged £155m
- • Madam Thao, the donor, has ties to the Communist Vietnamese government
- • However, no money has been sent leaving doubt that the deal will still go ahead
A University of Oxford college's name change is in doubt after the first payment of a £155million donation pledged by a Vietnamese billionaire didn't arrive. Linacre College has memorandum of understanding with Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao's company Sovico Group and announced it would change its name change to Thao College once money was received.
The 52-year-old 'bikini' airline tycoon has links to her country's brutal Communist regime, causing alumni of the college to protest the decision. The first payment of £50million was meant to have been paid to the college by June 30 but has not arrived, The Telegraph reported. The news comes amid speculation that Ms Thao is having second thoughts due to the possibility of negative publicity and concerns if the name change will go through. A source told the Telegraph that if the name change doesn't happen the businesswoman could pull out.
Speaking to the Telegraph previously, Madam Thao said:
"I believe that Oxford is the right place to make my long-time desire to contribute to humanity through education, training and research come true. By donating to Linacre College, we hope to make significant contributions to enrich Oxford's traditions and reputation."
Some critics feel the swap to Thao College would ignore the 'deep history' behind college names. While Conservative MP Julian Lewis said earlier this year in the House of Commons to then Education minister Michelle Donelan:
"Does she share my concern at the proposed £155 million gift from the billionaire chairwoman of a Vietnamese company to Linacre College Oxford, a distinguished graduate college, on condition that the name of the college is changed to that of the chairwoman of this company that is extremely close to the Vietnamese communist government, where there's certainly very little freedom of speech. The Privy Council has to approve this. Is the Government taking a view about this matter?"
However, an investigation into the matter was praised by the Department for Education (DfE) due to the level of diligence by Linacre College.
The college was founded in 1962 and named after Thomas Linacre, a renowned 15th century English scholar, humanist and physician. He counted Utopia author Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, chief adviser to Henry VIII, among his patients. Linacre also created the Royal College of Physicians in a bid to raise standards and prevent quack doctors from operating.
Madam Thao was born in 1970 and became a billionaire aged 21 while at university in Moscow, where she began importing goods. In 2018 her VietJet airline became immersed in scandal when bikini-clad models were paraded through a plane that was carrying the under-23 national football team.
The college is not the first to change its name following a large donation. Oxford's Harris Manchester College changed its name from Manchester College in 1996 following a donation from businessman Baron Harris. And Cambridge's Murray Edwards College changed its name in 2008 to honour benefactor Ros Edwards and its first president Dame Rosemary Murray.