First, I must declare that I am biased when it comes to universities: my support for them stems not only from my own academic experience, but also from more than a decade's engagement with those fine institutions in the course of my work at Santander.
Universities are crucial to the education of our young people, not only for their futures in the world of work and commerce, but also in opening their minds to the wider world that they will find themselves in once they graduate.
I know from my own good fortune in being able to study at a number of top universities across the globe that higher education not only helped my career path, but also allowed me to experience new cultures and make friendships and links that have stayed with me over the years.
Higher education is also the cornerstone of a strong economy. It boosts the intellectual capital of the nation, generates knowledge, fosters innovation and drives technological advances. Ultimately, this is what keeps the country competitive and prosperous - and it is needed now more than ever.
Growth in the UK is still slow and is forecast to reach only 2.75 per cent by 2012. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is now nearly 8 per cent, with some 2.5 million people out of work - the highest level for 13 years. The result is that those entering the labour market must stand out, and higher education is the best way of achieving it.
The UK's record deficit means that public funding is tight. Government departments will lose up to 25 per cent of their budgets and higher education will not escape this harsh reality. With this in mind, I believe it is time for the private sector to step up to the mark to play a role in helping with funding for new university places, courses and travel bursaries. If business leaders - and banks especially - want a highly skilled workforce, they should look to support the academy directly.
For the past 14 years, Santander has been doing just that via the Santander Universities network. Under the guidance of our chairman, Emilio Botin, the company has invested more than EUR600 million (£500 million) in higher education worldwide since 1996. Over the next six years, we are committed to providing a further EUR600 million for university projects and collaboration agreements.
This is not a short-term gimmick. The agreements we sign with participating universities are long-term partnerships. To further our commitment, we have just announced 300 new scholarships across the 39 British universities we support, bringing the number of UK university places funded by Santander to more than 1,200 in 2010.
The private sector has a crucial role to play in providing the skills and contacts needed to help UK universities gain access to new markets. Foreign students from Latin America and continental Europe represent a potential major source of income for a sector that has traditionally focused on the English-speaking markets of the US, India and China. To this end, we are continuing to build links between the 840 institutions in 14 countries across four continents that are involved in Santander Universities, where we support more than 14,000 scholarships and travel bursaries each year.
It is our conviction that excellence in education is the bedrock of a nation's growth, social progress and cultural development. As a business, we have a key role to play in terms of practical support, particularly given the recent economic turbulence. Personally, I know I wouldn't be here today if I had not been able to study in outstanding universities around the world.