London's SOAS university given £20m donation to study South East Asian art

University says it is one of the biggest donations ever given to a UK higher education institution

A London university has been handed £20 million to advance the study of South East Asian art, in one of the biggest donations ever received by such an institution in Britain.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, said it was one of the largest donations ever made to a UK higher education institution and is more than a quarter of its annual turnover.

The money was awarded by the Alphawood Foundation in Chicago, whose founder Fred Eychaner, a broadcasting tycoon, is a former Asian art student of SOAS.

Professor Paul Webley, university director, said it will have a "transformational impact" on the university,which specialises in oriental studies, providing funding for 80 scholarships and three academic posts.

Fifteen million will be ploughed into an academic programme to further research into South East Asian art and improve links in the region.

He said they were "thrilled" to be working with Alphawood on such a "visionary and ambitious project".

"SOAS has been studying and interpreting the development, languages, arts and cultures of Asia for nearly 100 years," he said. "This project will draw on that knowledge as well as further reinforce our position as a world-leading centre for the study and interpretation of South East Asian art.

"We aim to attract the highest-calibre candidates for the new academic posts and will reach out to our contacts across the region to attract students, curators and scholars, enabling a new generation of South East Asian art experts."

The Alphawood gift includes £5 million to be spent on developing most of the north wing of Senate House, the landmark 1930s University of London building in Bloomsbury situated next to the SOAS campus.

A broad range of scholarship candidates will be sought from across south-east Asia - especially Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Laos - from heritage organisations, museums, universities and government departments.

Mr Eychaner said: "Alphawood Foundation seeks to stimulate and expand the study of South East Asian art at all levels - from an educated and interested public to museum professionals to new PhD-level scholars.

"We chose to advance this goal by making our largest gift to date to SOAS because this School creates a very special learning and research environment where West meets East.

"It builds bridges to the universities, museums and galleries of Asia, including in areas where the arts were held back by war and politics in the 20th century."

Additional reporting by Press Association