Sunday Telegraph – 29 October 2023
By Louisa Clarence-Smith
An Oxford college which agreed to be renamed after a Vietnamese businesswoman in exchange for a donation which never materialised was told over a year ago about concerns over her business dealings, it is claimed.
Linacre College said last month that it had dropped plans to change its name to Thao College after Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, a budget airline founder and Vietnam's first self-made female billionaire.
The college agreed to change its name in Nov 2021 in exchange for a "landmark gift" of £155million from Ms Thao's company, Sovico Group. However, the funds never arrived, and the Sunday Telegraph has learned of a claim that the college was warned about concerns over Ms Thao's business dealings over a year ago.
It is claimed Linacre was told Ms Thao's budget airline Vietjet had failed to make rental payments on a fleet of aircraft. A source said Linacre was told of allegations a Vietjet representative had suggested to a UK-based partner that any UK court judgment would not be complied with.
Linacre was also said to have been told of claims that Vietjet had warned a company of political intervention by the Vietnamese government that would not be to its advantage. It is understood Vietjet strongly disputes the allegations.
Ms Thao, 53, launched Vietjet in 2007 as the country's first privately run lowcost airline. It became known as the "bikini airline" after an advertising campaign featuring bikini-clad flight attendants. A decade later, Ms Thao became south-east Asia's only female billionaire when she took the company public. She is now chairman of Vietjet and Sovico.
Sir Julian Lewis, the Tory MP for New Forest East, raised concerns last year about the donation from the head of a company
"extremely close to the Vietnamese communist government".
Commenting on the claims that Linacre was warned about Vietjet's dealings, he said:
"The more such controversies deepen, those who objected to renaming the college will feel themselves to be vindicated."
FitzWalter Capital, a Mayfair-based investment firm, is seeking £155million from Vietjet over claims that the airline fell behind on its rent for four planes and breached its contract. Vietjet is disputing the claim, and the case is expected to be heard in the High Court next year.
Linacre and Sovico did not respond to requests for comment, while FitzWalter Capital and Vietjet Air declined to comment.