Meet the London student who wore an ‘I want a refund’ banner to her graduation ceremony

Tia hopes her protest ‘will shine a light on the discussion of compensation for students during the Covid era’

Whether you worked your ass off for that first or went to your exams hungover, making it to the end of your programme is a big deal. And the graduation ceremony has become an important occasion for many students to celebrate this accomplishment (and mourn for having to leave the haven of uni for the cold, cruel world).

But while most grads stress about looking immaculate for those mandatory photos, fine arts student Tia O’Donnell strode across fellow UAL grads and profs with “I want a refund” written on a giant white cloth wrapped around her robe.

The London Tab spoke to Tia to find out more about her demonstration.

Twas a proud moment of mine’

As an artist who likes “to talk about topics that are considered uncomfortable,” Tia saw graduation as “a chance to be heard” on how the value for money and student satisfaction of uni have been plummeting due to the pandemic, which affected two of her three-year course.

She told The London Tab: “If I am being completely honest, I have been highly unsatisfied with my time at Central Saint Martins.

“For example, on the first day back for my third year, the tutors hailed all of the students for an online video call to tell us that our physical degree show would be cancelled and moved to be online, despite Covid restrictions being lifted and other universities having physical in person shows.

“As you can imagine I was absolutely heart-broken, it was a dream of mine since I was a young girl to attend CSM and for all the hard work over the years to just be put on a website did not sit right with me,” she said.

On top of that, constant lecturer strikes and a close call for a marking boycott towards the end of the year also hugely impacted her experience.

“I do totally understand why the tutors had no choice but to go on strike due to their pay falling behind inflation, however what I don’t see fair is how the students have to bear the brunt of this protest. It seems that students are treated as the lowest form of life in the university food chain and no-one cares.

“Some form of compensation is deserved to all the students across the country who were forced to pay the full university fees whilst being a bedroom student,” she said.

What Tia wore to grad

While she considered boycotting the ceremony entirely in protest, Tia ended up combining the cause and her “great love for performance work and exhibitionists” for her demonstration – “a statement graffitied onto a piece of fabric which I draped across my graduation gown.”

She said: “I was worried that I would be removed from the building if discovered. However I hid my demonstration until the last minute and whipped it over my gown before I addressed the stage.

“Twas a proud moment of mine and one I won’t forget in a hurry.”

Tia walking across the stage during the ceremony

I would love the university to have some accountability’

As videos of her protest circulate online, responses have been largely positive, with comments calling her a “legend,” “icon,” and “hero.”

Tia thinks her protest “has seriously struck a chord with fellow students” because she is just “one example in a sea of student loans.”

She told The London Tab: “I hope at my demonstration will shine a light on the discussion of compensation for students during the Covid era.

“We have all been promised a great course with great workshops and amazing opportunities, however, due to many factors – including but not limited to Covid – courses have all been moved online. [This set us] free into the world with massive student debt and a level of education that falls way below the amount we’ve been forced to pay.

“I would love the university to have some accountability too. Not only for forcing the tutors to go on strike due to pay cuts but also for stunting the growth and confidence of students.

“The quality of education has been affected and therefore some form of compensation is warranted,” she said.

Photo provided and used with permission from Tia

UAL has been contacted for comment.

Photos in the feature image and within the article are all provided and used with permission from Tia. You can find more of her work on her website and Instagram.

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