Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba will deliver his budget speech in February. PHOTO: Phando Jikelo / ANA

Johannesburg - Government is pushing ahead with a plan to offer free university education to students from poor households and will announce funding details in next month's budget, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba said on Tuesday.

President Jacob Zuma said last month the government would bankroll the tuition without giving details of how it would be funded. The announcement rattled financial markets and critics said it was a populist promise that risked widening an already gaping budget deficit.

A government report and the treasury said the plan is unaffordable. Some critics also said the timing of the announcement, which came days before Zuma stepped down as leader of the African National Congress, showed he no longer cared about fiscal responsibility.

Read: Poor, working class students to get free higher education, says Zuma

Gigaba told reporters at a televised briefing in Pretoria that costs estimates had been finalized and the plan would be implemented over eight years.

"The president found himself in an invidious position .... It is about how to manage the process and implement it in a sustainable manner without having to breach the fiscal expenditure ceiling," he said."

Also read: Treasury to review possible financing options for free higher education

"If the president had not acted this year to provide some funding it would have resulted in further protests," he said.

Since 2015 protests by students demanding free education rocked campuses across the country, disrupting teaching and examinations and culminating in a march to Zuma's offices in Pretoria that saw the president freeze tuition increases.