Universities minister looks into donation from ‘bikini’ airline founder to Linacre College on the condition that the college change its name
By Camilla Turner, Chief Political Correspondent
Daily Telegraph Online – 14 June 2022
An Oxford college is under investigation over a £155 million gift from a Vietnamese billionaire who founded a “bikini” airline, amid concern over her links to the country’s communist government. Linacre College announced last year that in exchange for the “landmark gift” from Sovico Group, it would change its name to Thao College, named after the company’s chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao. But the donation is now subject to an “active investigation” by the Government, according to Michelle Donelan, the universities minister.
She made the disclosure in the Commons during a debate about the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill after Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, raised concerns about the donation. He asked Ms Donelan whether she shared his concern
“at the proposed £155 million gift from the billionaire chairwoman of a Vietnamese company to Linacre College Oxford ... 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”.
Mr Lewis pointed out that the Privy Council had to approve the name change and asked if the Government was taking a view on this. Ms Donelan said that she had only recently been “alerted” to the donation, adding:
“I am actively investigating this, and can update the rt. honourable member within the coming days.”
Mr Lewis told The Telegraph that it was impossible to have
“genuinely independent companies operating in totalitarian Communist countries”.
The MP, who is chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee but speaking in a personal capacity, added:
“Since the end of the Cold War, Communist regimes have been far more successful at subverting Western societies by using huge sums of money to worm their way into positions of control than they ever managed by ideological infiltration.”
Linacre College was founded in 1962 and is named after the distinguished humanist and physician Thomas Linacre, who was born in Canterbury in the mid-fifteenth century. But the college announced in November that it would change its name in exchange for a £155 million donation from Ms Thao’s company, Sovico Group.
Ms Thao was born in 1970 in Hanoi, north Vietnam. She began to build her fortune at age 21 while studying at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow, where she began importing fax machines, plastic and rubber into the then Soviet Union.
In 2007, she launched VietJet Air as the first privately run low-cost airline in Vietnam which became known as the “bikini airline” after it ran an advertising campaign featuring bikini-clad flight attendants. A decade later, she took the company public and in doing so became south-east Asia’s only female billionaire. Ms Thao is chairman of Sovico Holdings, the parent company of VietJet Air, which invests in a number of real estate and energy projects.
Legislation to protect 'UK values'
Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, proposed new laws this week which will see universities sanctioned if they allow foreign entities to influence what is said on campus. Institutions will have to report their financial links to individuals or organisations from overseas, or be fined under the proposals to make sure freedom of speech against authoritarian regimes is protected. Mr Zahawi said that he did not want universities to feel “under pressure” to compromise on academic freedom because of funding from countries like China.
The Government introduced new amendments to its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill on Monday in order to curb foreign influence on campuses. These will require overseas funding of £75,000 or more to be declared by universities and students’ unions to ensure “UK values” are not compromised.
A Linacre College spokesman said that all its donations are
“in line with government guidance and laws”.
“Major donations are approved by the College’s Governing Body in addition to the University’s Committee to Review Donations and Research Funding, both of which follow a robust, independent process, taking legal, ethical and reputational issues into consideration.”