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LONDON (Reuters) - Billionaire Canadian philanthropist John McCall MacBain has donated 75 million pounds ($120 million) to help expand Oxford University's prestigious Rhodes scholarship program to elite students from China, Russia and Brazil.
The century-old postgraduate award boasts a list of world leaders among its scholars including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, six Commonwealth prime ministers including Australia's newly appointed Tony Abbott, three Nobel Prize laureates and 18 Pulitzer Prize winners.
But the scholarship, set up in 1903 by the will of Cecil John Rhodes - founder of the southern African territory of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe - currently funds 83 selected students a year only from Commonwealth nations, the United States and Germany.
MacBain, who sold his advertising company Trader Classified Media for what Canadian media reports said was more than $2 billion in 2006, was himself a Rhodes scholar and said attending Oxford University was a highlight of his life.
He said he wanted to expand the scholarship program which has helped develop future leaders for over a century.
"I believe that, if he were alive today, Cecil Rhodes would want to help find the leaders of the future in countries such as China, Japan, Brazil and Russia," MacBain said in an email to Reuters.
"With this endowment, it is hoped that the Rhodes Trust will be able to do just that in the decade to come."
The donation, the largest since the program was founded, was announced as Oxford University celebrated the 110th anniversary of the scholarship.
"With the world facing ever-increasing challenges, the need to help develop leadership skills is more important than ever," MacBain said in a speech at the university.
British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the announcement.
"It is great news for the UK and our world class, higher education system that such a prestigious program looks set to be secured for the long term," Cameron said in a statement.
MacBain started building his fortune aged 29 in 1987 when he bought three small classified ad publications in Montreal, including one for buying and selling cars.
The business grew to over 350 print titles and 50 Internet sites in 20 other countries before he sold it in 2006 and turned his attention to philanthropy with the founding of the McCall MacBain Foundation.
Since 2007 the McCall MacBain Foundation has donated more than 100 million pounds to education, health and environmental causes in Canada, Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Additional reporting by Belinda Goldsmith in London, Andrea Hopkins in Toronto; Editing by Alison Williams