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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of higher education institutions in profound ways. After the restrictions of movement under lockdowns imposed in response to the pandemic from 2020, higher education institutions were forced to think creatively and quickly about how to respond to
arising challenges of completing the academic year and ensuring throughput and retention of students. Historically disadvantaged institutions in South Africa were particularly hard hit in taking on the challenge of online learning given their restricted resources and the under-preparedness of the student cohort who are attracted to these institutions. This article uses data from two surveys conducted among students at the University of the Western Cape which measured students’ experiences and access to psycho-social and academic support services in 2020. In addition to the findings of these surveys, emails from a student counselling line at the university are also used to reflect on students’ expressed needs for support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Utilising Nancy Fraser’s model of social justice and focusing particularly on the economic and cultural dimensions of this model, this article seeks to provide an understanding of the constraints and support that students experienced when seeking to access online academic and psycho-social support. Fraser’s affirmative and transformative approaches to producing change are discussed to help identify how the constraints that were experienced could be addressed to achieve participatory parity.