The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a plethora of inequalities. These inequalities have had a direct impact on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG 3 (good health and well-being) and SDG 4 (quality education). The pandemic has laid bare that achievement of these goals by 2030 might be wishful thinking. In the higher education sector, COVID-19, and the subsequent stringent lockdown measures, meant that traditional face-to-face instruction was not possible. For students, this created conditions of unprecedented isolation and physical separation. This unveiled student well-being as a cause for concern and invoked much uncertainty around how to mitigate the effects of isolation, especially given that learning is essentially a social process. This means that universities may need to give greater attention to students’ well-being, social support and sense of belonging when supporting them during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. This remains a priority especially when a growing human consciousness on issues of sustainability increases, the responsibility of the university to address issues of sustainability in all the activities also increases.
1. The Perceived Impact of COVID-19: Student Well-Being and Quality Education
The scholarship on general human well-being is characterised by a cacophony of theories ranging from pleasure-seeking (self-indulgent), desire satisfaction theories (hedonia) to happiness seeking theories (eudaimonia) to objective-list theories 
. While research on student well-being has also produced much variation, in recent years, there has been some degree of convergence as to what might constitute student well-being in higher education. Even most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a proliferation of international studies on student well-being (see for example 
A recent study in the United States 
reveals that unprecedented historical events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the global legacy of institutionalised racism, have had, as macro mediating factors, a telling effect on student well-being at the meso (university) level as well as at the micro (personal) level. On a micro (personal) level, a study 
across 62 countries, sampling 30,383 students investigated the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although a number of key findings emerged, students were mainly concerned about their current studies, future professional careers and experienced overall boredom, anxiety and frustration 
. The student participants from Africa (Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt) were particularly concerned about their future job prospects due to economic turmoil (55.7%); their current financial position to fund their studies due to loss of temporary work or permanent loss of employment of those funding their studies (50.8%); and their inability to travel abroad as part of student mobility, international students returning to family and seeking employment beyond national borders (30.1%). These student responses from Africa corroborate with South African students’ experiences during the first wave of the pandemic. The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Higher Health Centre surveyed more than 13,000 students in the Post School Education and Training (PSET) Sector to determine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth in South Africa 
. Several themes were investigated ranging from substance use, exposure to violence, financial support, student well-being and impact on learning. The main challenges experienced by students during lockdown were psychological distress (65%), loss of study time (57.9%), not having enough money for essential personal items for studying (55.8%), loss of social contact (42.2%) and not having enough money for food (40.1%), and 25.4% of students said they experienced physical violence more during lockdown than before 
. For government, these findings have necessitated greater intuitional support, increased communication as well as health and well-being strategies. In terms of the latter, governments urged that pro-active health and well-being programmes be developed and implemented across all institutions nationally through initiatives such as core curricula that take heed of psychosocial dimensions toward maintaining and promoting health and well-being as well as coping strategies through multi-disciplinary support mechanisms for acute situational counselling and debriefing sessions 
. For Soudien 
, this requires a new alignment of affordances, mechanisms, institutions and support personnel.
2. The Perceived Impact of Social Support
In the South African higher education context, which is characterised by a large proportion of first-generation students, it is no wonder that government is stressing the need for a considered approach in addressing both socio-cultural and economic factors that students are experiencing 
. In terms of the socio-cultural, it is without contention that social isolation brought about by COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health concerns of all students. This is fuelled by neoliberal accommodationism, that is, the individualisation of responsibility for well-being 
, an ideological tenet that needs to be disrupted. An inclusive partnership modality 
that actively solicits student perspectives might enable empowering initiatives to mitigate the conditions that diminish student well-being 
. By seeking out situation-specific strategies to reduce student stress and to help students develop competences to respond effectively to stress, they can better navigate the new demands facing degree completion. On par with the socio-cultural factors, the economic ramifications of the pandemic have arguably been just as unsettling 
. Diminished employment prospects that COVID-19 presents in a South African economy plagued by poor labour absorption rates even before the pandemic 
, together with fiscal austerity 
, as it relates to student funding are perennial challenges that students experience. This paints a grim picture of a lived reality that is likely to compromise the quality of student well-being and aspirations for degree completion as the financial situation has stripped many students of the resources that they need to gain access to online learning, pay tuition fees and secure funding to see their studies to fruition.
In the fluctuation “new normal” of COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 fluctuating, Plakhotnik, et al. 
argue that social support can be a significant moderator to capacitate students to cope with the socio-cultural and economic factors that they experience if universities prioritise support for students’ studies. This includes awareness of how students’ emotional responses change vis-à-vis the crisis and ensuring that student support is made visible and accessible 
. This resonates with research conducted with students and their expectations for how universities can enhance their mental well-being 
. In this research, students revealed that social support has various dimensions ranging from curricular activities, social life, student services and physical spaces. Students regarded the attributes of their lecturers as having a direct influence on how the support provided was received. Lecturers with communication skills that were approachable and empathic proved to lower the negative effects that they are experiencing 
. In addition, students revealed that support services are only useful if institutions create an increased awareness and promote the use of these services (in the form of, for example, counselling, academic skills and student advice) and if institutions are adequately resourced to meet students demands of these services through improved availability, range and the overall quality of the services 
. For Ye, et al. 
, COVID-19-related stressful experiences are not only mediated through social support, but resilience and adaptive coping strategies also prove significant to minimise stress disorders among students.
3. The Moderating Role of Belonging (Identification)
A supportive and enabling environment on campus has been proven to ensure student well-being 
. Student well-being could be moderated through a sense of identification such as belonging, positive relationships with others, autonomy and competencies 
. Academics, as those who work most directly with students, can play a central role in raising meta-awareness of student well-being 
through enabling pedagogies and a philosophy/pedagogy of care 
that should ideally be constitutive of a comprehensive university-wide strategy to enhance student well-being 
. It thus entails an integrated, embedded approach involving partnerships between the university’s mental health professionals and academics as they forge a curriculum that addresses student mental well-being 
. For improved student well-being, an inclusive and humanising pedagogy is needed 
. This correlates with a study conducted by Eloff and Graham 
who found that the deterioration in the mental health and well-being of South African students necessitates proactive initiatives that develop student self-efficacy, feelings of affinity, affiliation and connectedness. For Soudien 
(p. 65), this can become possible if academic institutions take heed of “the politics of learning” and not only be consumed by dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic through restabilising steps because stabilisation is a return to the conditions of dominance. The politics of learning challenges our longstanding ills of thinking we have a homogenous student body who we can teach using inflexible and one-size-fits-all pedagogies. Instead, it forces us to confront the challenges that arise now that teaching is no longer within traditional parameters and reveals different dimensions of learning as multiple modalities that shape our students’ “bodies, brains and social circumstances” as “their epigenetic holism, impact how each of them is learning” 
(p. 258). This speaks directly to ideas on belonging and the attachment students may have as a source of security and support.
In their seminal work on learning in a community of practice, Lave and Wenger 
contend that a key aspect of community of practice membership is the notion of belonging. Affinity, connection and inclusion are crucial elements that might assist members of a group to identify with the group and to develop own identities within groups through mutual engagement, sharing a common learning enterprise and by employing a shared repertoire for group engagement 
. The uncertainty created by COVID-19 and social distancing in particular triggers what Godinic, Obrenovic and Khudaykulov 
describe as social identity disturbance, a rupturing of a sense of belonging that is likely to affect the mental health of people. In recent work, Hogg 
contends that social identity theory emphasises the importance of individual self-conception as individuals interact within groups. James and Theriault 
, in their assessment of contemporary research on adult education and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, argue that learning is likely to be enhanced in groups where members feel a strong sense of belonging, an intimate affiliation that affirms a sense of self. This is corroborated by Mooney and Becker’s 
study, which confirms that the sudden shift to online learning affected students’ sense of belonging and that more attention be directed at how institutions and pedagogues might actively work towards facilitating the formation of inclusive learning communities.