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via Instagram (@tia4u)

Why this UAL grad wants her tuition fees refunded

Fine arts graduate Tia O’ Donnell protested against the treatment of students during the COVID-19 pandemic at her graduation ceremony last week – here, she tells us why

The loss that students have experienced thanks to COVID is, in some ways, unquantifiable. They’ve missed out on formative experiences, from knocking back shots in Freshers week, to finding community within union societies, to lusting over a library crush. Arguably, it’s a loss which can never be truly redressed.

What’s more quantifiable and redressable, however, is the loss of face-to-face teaching, in-person workshops, and access to facilities like science labs and theatres. Every year, students fork over more than £9,000 for their tuition and access to facilities, which begs the question: what did the Covid generation of students pay for, exactly? Tuition fees are already an unjustifiably expensive sum, even for those who graduated pre-2020 – but for the cohorts who have had limited in-person teaching and hardly set foot on campus at all, it’s a straight-up ridiculous amount of money.

There have been multiple calls for students to be compensated or reimbursed as a result of disruptions to teaching over the course of the pandemic, and in some instances students have been successful in getting their money back – one university paid a student £200, while another was awarded £5,000. Demands for tuition fee refunds have quietened over the past year, but now as students return to campuses across the country to celebrate postponed graduations, many are taking the time to reflect on their time at university and renewing their requests for compensation.

Tia O’ Donnell, a recent fine arts graduate of UAL, is one of them. Last week, she turned up at her graduation ceremony wearing a cloth emblazoned with the words “I want a refund” draped across her gown. As Tia walked across the stage, she was met with raucous applause and cheering. The video of her protest has gone viral, with thousands of people liking, sharing, and commenting on her post, hailing her actions as “iconic”.

We spoke to Tia about her uni experience, her decision to protest, and how she pulled it off. 

What was your uni experience like?

Tia O’ Donnell: I spent two out of the three years behind a computer screen instead of being in the studio and in the workshops and having the full university community experience. It was so heartbreaking for me because it had been my dream since I was 12 years old to go to Central Saint Martins. Obviously, no one knew that COVID was going to happen, however, I think the way they’ve dealt with students has just been unacceptable and neglectful.

I’ve really missed out on the amazing amenities that CSM has to offer, however, I still have to pay the full price and that just does not sit right with me. So overall, my experience has been quite a negative one, and I would like a refund, please.

How did you decide to protest in the way you did? 

Tia O’ Donnell: I’m tired of students being the last in the ‘university food chain’. I decided to protest a few months ago because I was so fed up with not being listened to and the lack of response from the university. And while I do completely stand behind the tutors as they have to stand up for their rights, strikes also affected students’ work and confidence.

I am an artist and in my practice I like to talk about topics that are considered uncomfortable to talk about. I have a great love for performance work and exhibitionists. I saw my graduation as a chance to be heard and express not only what I’m thinking, but also what all the other students are thinking too.

Did you consider taking action in another way – writing something else on the banner or boycotting the ceremony, for example?

Tia O’ Donnell: I did consider just not turning up to the graduation as some form of protest. However, I don’t think that would have worked in the way that I wanted it to.

I also initially had the idea of holding a flag as I went across the stage. However, with the way the ceremony works, it would have been quite difficult for that to go unnoticed. I had my suspicions that they would have kicked me out or not let me walk on stage if I had done that.

How exactly did you pull it off?

Tia O’ Donnell: I sprayed “I want a refund” on a piece of fabric and tucked it underneath my armpit whilst the ceremony was going on. At the beginning of the ceremony, [UAL Chancellor] Grayson Perry – who is one of my favourite artists ever – said in his speech that an artist’s career should be political and that you should use your creativity to speak up against things that you think are unjust.

When he said that, all my anxiety melted away. I thought if Grayson says that’s what our careers should be, then I’m definitely doing the right thing today. So then roughly ten seconds before I went on stage, I whipped it over my gown and turned to the student behind me and said “is this readable?” – she laughed and said, “I love you”. And then I just walked onstage. 

I felt like it was the politest way to [disrupt] the ceremony because I didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience. I just wanted students to be heard.

What has the response been like?

Tia O’ Donnell: The crowd went crazy – everyone was cheering and laughing and you can just hear my mum losing her mind.

And the response online has been amazing. I had no idea that this would have been the response – I’m overwhelmed. I think it’s just a matter of time before students come together. The more we push, the more will be heard.