Why a businessman gave $7m to UOW

Christopher Abbott. Picture: BEN RUSHTON
Christopher Abbott. Picture: BEN RUSHTON

Sydney businessman Christopher Abbott always enjoyed escaping to his South Coast weekender but his regular trips past the University of Wollongong also got him thinking.

"I've owned a property at Jamberoo for well over 40 years," the now retired philanthropist said.

"I love the area, so every weekend when we came down I would drive past the uni and think a lot about it," he said.

"I've spent a lot of my time on projects that are all about curing the sick, making pills, that sort of stuff. But prevention is much better than a cure. I think getting kids thinking for themselves, money spent on that is better than money spent on pills."

Inspired, Mr Abbott organised a "meeting of the minds" between himself and university heavyweights, former vice-chancellor Gerard Sutton and Dean of Education Paul Chandler.

"I went to see Gerard Sutton and Paul Chandler a few years ago; we were all thinking alike, it was very very easy," Mr Abbott said.

"We all got on well and we were thinking the same way."

The results of that meeting culminated in a $7 million donation to the university, which Mr Abbott handed over yesterday.

The generous gift is the largest from a philanthropist in the university's history and will make possible a new early childhood learning facility on campus.

Mr Abbott said he was motivated simply by his desire to "make a big difference to a lot of kids".

"I'm hoping it will be a big success and people will want to copy it," Mr Abbott, founder of the Abbott Foundation, said.

"I'm hoping the local community in Wollongong will support this, both with time and money.

"It will not make a profit, most of these kinds of centres operate at a loss but someone has got to pay for it. Let's hope it all works out well."

The federal government announced last month it would provide $31 million for the Early Start Learning Facility - Mr Abbott's donation covers the rest of the cost.

Mr Abbott said he had absolute faith in the "really important people" behind the new facility, which will include teaching and research space for early childhood students and graduates, as well as a Children's Discovery Centre.

"[The Discovery Centre] will be completely run by the university, [with] some young guys around to help," Mr Abbott said.

"There will be a lot of volunteers too, which is wonderful. I think the kids will relate much better to a 16-year-old than they will to me."

The dream was to help children learn in a fun, non-threatening environment so they developed self-confidence and leadership skills. It was about opening their eyes to things not in the school curriculum.

"We want the Discovery Centre to enable children to look after themselves, to thrive, grow, create and interact … to become part of society," Mr Abbott said.

"We want them to explore the world in which they live and the rules that govern that world, so that they can better handle the emotional and moral problems that they will certainly have to face."

UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings said Mr Abbott's contribution was one of the largest donations ever made to a non-Group of Eight university in Australia.

"The university being the recipient of such a generous donation was a great boost for the Illawarra region," Prof Wellings said.

He hoped it would "inspire other regional organisations and industries to look at how they could contribute to the project to make it even more influential".


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