Oxford college’s plan to rename itself after Vietnamese billionaire collapses

The promised donation from Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao has failed to materialise
The promised donation from Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao has failed to materialise - Linh LT/Bloomberg

A plan to rename an Oxford college after a Vietnamese “bikini airline” tycoon has been dropped after a promised £155 million donation failed to materialise, The 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 chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao.

However, it is understood that alumni were told at a dinner this month 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 that has been fined 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 at the 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, 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.

Linacre College has changed its plans for a rebranding
Linacre College has changed its plans for a rebranding

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.”

Some alumni responded with “sadness, or even anger”, according to a statement by Lisa Smårs, head of alumni relations and development, weeks after the agreement. There was a backlash against the proposed rebranding of the college, which is named after the 15th century renaissance scholar Thomas Linacre.

What’s in a name? Recent university rebrandings
What’s in a name? Recent university rebrandings

Questions were raised about why Ms Thao wanted to take millions out of Vietnam, which is a poorer country than the UK. “Vietnam is poor. We need money,” Pham Quy Tho, a former dean of public policy at the Academy of Policy and Development, told Nikkei Asia. He said that “nobody could understand where” the money was going.

Sir Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP and the 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 the Vietnamese communist government”.

An investigation was launched, but soon afterwards, 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 30 June, 2022.

The college was named after Thomas Linacre, a 15th century renaissance scholar
The college was named after Thomas Linacre, a 15th century renaissance scholar

The college’s principal, the botanist Dr Nick Leimu-Brown, along with its bursar and development director 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. “Following productive face-to-face meetings in Vietnam we are now putting all the relevant processes and paperwork in place,” a spokesman said in a statement.

However, sources familiar with the negotiations said that the planned donation to the Oxford college 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”, and “domestic investors wishing to invest abroad face a number of procedural regulations”.

A source familiar with the agreement said the college had been “extremely thorough” in its due diligence, but said that senior figures in the college now conceded that they may have been “naive”.

One alumnus of the 61-year-old 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,” they said. “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.”

Linacre College declined to comment. Ms Thao and Sovico Group did not respond to requests for comment.