Argentine education minister Juan Jose Llach is pressing for the introduction of community work as a compulsory component of all undergraduate courses at the country's 84 state and private universities.
And, despite some concerns, Mr Llach's initiative has already won the general approval of the majority of rectors.
Higher education secretary Juan Carlos Gottifredi told the national daily La Nacion that social service would bring universities closer to the community and help give them legitimacy in the community's eyes. Mr Gottifredi said that out of respect for university autonomy laws the ministry did not intend to impose the project and that talks with rectors were proving fruitful. He said that he expected the project to be fully operational within the next two years.
Julio Salerno, rector of the Universidad Nacional de Catamarca and president of the National Interuniversity Council, welcomed the initiative but stressed the need for its formal acceptance by individual universities.
But the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) has already said that it intends to exempt undergraduates on degree courses in medicine, dentistry, architecture, psychology, law and social work because such courses already contain social service-linked projects. And university unions are asking the ministry to provide additional funding to cover the extra work involved for professors in advising students and evaluating their progress.
The main risk, according to Fortunato Mallimaci, dean of UBA's social sciences faculty, is that students could be exploited as cheap labour by the private sector. Community work, he said, would have to fulfil real, ethically justifiable requirements.
There is opposition from Argentina's private universities to the obligatory nature of the project. Francisco von Wuthenau, rector of the Universidad de San Andres, rejected the idea that social work should be made obligatory. The central aim, he said, should be the contribution it could make to the student's own development and not the repayment of any debt to society.
Ana Maria Mancasola, the director of social planning at the Universidad de Belgran, also opposed any obligatory scheme. She said that social service would make sense only if students were committed to what they were doing. Universidad de Belgran students, she added, were already obliged to carry out 400 hours of professional work prior to graduation.