The country needs an urgent explanation on how free education for the poor and academically deserving, announced last month by President Jacob Zuma, will be implemented and paid for, two unions said on Monday.
"It is critical for our institutions, students and our country that the implementation and budget plan be confirmed very soon. Who's paying for this, how is it going to be done and where is the money coming from?" asked the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
"We must stop playing politics with our children's future," said NTEU President Dimakatso Peo on behalf of the staff represented by the union, amid concerns over mass walk-ins to universities by students applying for places after Zuma's announcement.
While she welcomed Zuma's December 16 announcement on the plan for free higher education, Peo expressed concern over the lack of clarity around its implementation, and the "elusive" responses by Cabinet members questioned on the strategy.
Said NTEU general secretary Grant Abbott: "We may have normalised the notion that protests can spark up at any given moment, but we must realise the emotional and psychological toll this has taken on staff.
"Add to this the looming threat of retrenchments and the realities of already trimmed resources, a volatile work environment becomes almost unbearable."
Effect of years of protests
NTEU said it believes in free higher education for the poor and academically deserving, but the staff guiding students through their education should also be considered and informed.
Universities have made it clear that walk-ins will not be allowed but the EFF Student Command is campaigning to allow this in light of possible online system crashes and internet access issues.
Prospective students who have not applied yet are asked instead to register with the department's Central Application Clearing House system which will help find places for them.
Last year NTEU expressed concern over the effect that years of protests are having on staff and students at institutions of higher learning.
While educators found resourceful ways of keeping classes going, even meeting at secret locations off-campus, the union said staff could not continue feeling unsure, and even frightened at times.
Requests for meetings
NTEU noted that the Minister of Higher Education and Training Hlengiwe Mkhize had "alluded" to having consulted unions, but said it was unaware which unions these were.
For this reason, NTEU has sent an urgent request for a meeting to Mkhize's office.
The National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) said on Monday it had met with the South African Students' Congress (Sasco) at the weekend to discuss the implementation of free education.
The organisations agreed to work together to ensure a smooth start to the year, including helping students settle into accommodation.
However, Nehawu also wants a meeting with the government before the delivery of the budget speech in which Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba is expected to reveal the new funding plans.
"A meeting will be demanded with government before the delivery of the budget speech to speak to issues of funding and implementation of free education," said a joint statement by Nehawu and Sasco.
An update on the funding and implementation process from Treasury was not immediately available.
Nehawu and Sasco believe that the private sector, as the biggest "consumer" of skills, should fund free education through grants and bursaries, not loans.