Oxford University defends $180MM donation from Vietnamese billionaire 'Madame Thao' amid investigation

Oxford University’s Linacre College is defending its acceptance of a $180 million donation from Vietnam’s first self-made woman billionaire, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao.

Nguyen, widely known as Madam Thao, is Vietnam’s first and only woman billionaire who began her career selling fax machines and latex rubber as a student in Russia, which was then the Soviet Union. By the age of 21, Nguyen made her first million and is now estimated to have a net worth of $2.7 billion. She currently runs VietJet airline and a large property empire, with investments in offshore oil and gas exploration as well as fossil fuel financing.

On Oct. 31, 2020, Nguyen donated the $180 million to Linacre College through her holding company Sovico Group. In November, the college agreed to change its name to Thao College following Nguyen’s donation.

“Education and research are the keys to the development and prosperity of mankind,” Nguyen said at the time of the deal’s announcement. “I believe the long-term cooperation with Oxford University will bring new opportunities and good value to the community.”

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Due to Nguyen’s close ties to Vietnam’s communist government, however, education minister Michelle Donelan is “actively investigating” the donation and will be providing an update sometime soon.

“This was something that I have recently been alerted to and I am actively investigating this, and can update (Mr Lewis) within the coming days,” Donelan stated at a Higher Education Bill report meeting.

In an attempt “to ensure that UK values cannot be compromised” and that “foreign actors” will not have “undue influence” on U.K. universities, Nguyen’s donation is currently under investigation.

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“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,” conservative MP Julian Lewis asked Donelan on Monday during a Higher Education Bill report meeting.

Linacre College defended the $180 million donation, stating that it complies with “government guidance and laws.”

“This important gift will support new postgraduate access scholarships, establish a new research center, and create a new college site with much improved facilities for graduate students,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying.

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Feature Image via Chubby Jayaram Singh

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