Mining magnate gives A$65 million to universities

One of Australia’s wealthiest men, mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, announced last week that he and his wife Nicola would donate A$65 million (US$62 million) to Western Australia’s five universities, the largest gift made to Australian higher education to date.

As part of the donation, A$50 million will be spent on establishing a foundation to fund annual scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships for 25 international PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.

Forrest, an economics graduate from the University of Western Australia, chairs the Fortescue Metals Group of which he owns about 30%.

The Forrests want the scholarships to be an Australian version of Oxford University’s Rhodes Scholarship and the Gates Cambridge Scholarship scheme. Forrest said he hoped the money would bring some of the world’s “leading academic talent” to Australia to conduct research in a variety of postgraduate areas to the benefit of students and the universities.

“We hope this is simply the beginning of Australia, and especially Western Australia, being able to leverage its many advantages to a much greater extent in terms of academic research,” he said.

The donation takes the total amount given in announced donations to higher education over the last two years to more than A$190 million.

Forrest and his wife had previously said they would give away most of their A$3.66 billion fortune in line with the ‘Giving Pledge’ gift scheme initiated by US billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Of the total sum, A$15 million would be used to build “Forrest Hall – a creative living space" for top young researchers as one of the world’s best residential colleges.

The announcement was made at a dinner where the University of Western Australia launched a A$400 million fundraising drive.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson welcomed the donation and said it was part of an increasing tendency by wealthy Australians to donate large sums to university research. She rejected suggestions that the federal government might cut its own spending on higher education if donations of such a size continued to be made.

“I actually see it as a way of leveraging the public dollar,” Robinson said. “There’s no doubt that public budgets all around the world are constrained and the list of things that compete for the public dollar only ever seems to get longer.

“Whether or not this results in less public funding available for research remains to be seen but I doubt that; I think it will just help to encourage governments to really understand the importance of having a very strong research capability in Australia.”