‘I Want A Refund’: Meet The Student Who Protested At Her Graduation Ceremony

‘We have been set free into the world with massive debt and a level of education that falls below the price we’ve been forced to pay. I want a refund.’

university refund protest

by Tia O'Donnell |
Published on

As a young girl, I dreamt about attending Central Saint Martins. Everyone has heard of this famous top university, which has bred some of the most iconic creatives of our time and I believed I was going to be one of them. The moment I got accepted, I was the proudest I’ve ever felt. I chose to study fine art after declaring myself an artist at the age of 15.

Dedicating and investing my time and money- a steep £9000 a year- into my career was a rather daunting thing. The first day of university was everything I expected it to be, filled with nervous excitement, awkward getting to know each other games and falling in love with the excellent amenities. But this all quickly changed when the pandemic hit. I wish I could say the four years I have invested in CSM were magical, however, my time at university felt very empty.

I chose to protest at my graduation ceremony because I felt that my voice and my fellow students’ voices were ignored. Having paid the full university fees over the Covid period, it felt unjust to be paying for all the promised amenities and opportunities that were never delivered.

There have been a few moments during my course where I felt like quitting was the only option. What I expected to feel like as student was the complete opposite of how we were treated. On the first day back of third year the tutors summoned all of the students to an online video call to tell us that our physical degree show would be cancelled and would take place online, despite covid restrictions being lifted and other universities having physical in person shows. I was absolutely heart broken.

All the hard work we did in our bedroom would be displayed on a website—that did not sit right with me. The degree show is where you get recognition, potentially are picked up by a gallery and, for some, it was meant to be the first time they would display their art in a gallery space. I was devastated that the university were so quick to try and take that away from their paying students.

We had to protest and go on strike to fight to have our physical degree show back, whilst making the work and writing our dissertations. The constant strikes from the tutors are also another issue. One strike happened just as we handed in our final degree work, the last hurdle, the finale, and the tutors threatened to not mark our work.

I totally understand why the tutors had no choice but to go on strike due to their pay falling behind inflation. But what I don’t see as 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.

Attempting to study a physical degree like Fine Art behind a computer screen is depressing. I’m not alone in saying that as we all, as a collective, became keyboard typing professionals during Covid. But paying a large portion of money per year to be watching power point presentations is soul sucking. It’s worse for the international students who are paying almost double and have to endure online education in different time zones. Not quite the university experience any of us imagined.

‘I want a refund’ was the first thing I said when I handed in my final degree work. Even after writing an email to the Dean of UAL stating that some form of compensation is due, I received no response. I am an artist and in my practice I like to talk about topics that are considered uncomfortable. I have a great love for performance work and exhibitionists.

So, I saw my graduation as a chance to be heard, a chance to speak up for not only myself but my peers and for the CSM hierarchy, to actually be forced to listen to the students’ opinion. I felt compelled to use the graduation ceremony as a stage for my performance piece. Having to also pay to attend the graduation, rent the gown and have a photo taken riled me up enough to let everyone know how all students were feeling.

The idea came to me a few months prior, knowing full well it would be impactful. Rather than boycott the graduation ceremony, which I was considering, I decided to attend with a statement graffitied onto a piece of fabric which I draped across my graduation gown. Feeling unsure as to how the audience would react, I tactically hid the masterpiece underneath my armpit until my name was called.

Knowing that all the tutors, deans and officials would be there was the perfect moment but also a nerve racking one. Initially I had no idea how anyone would react. But inside I knew what I was about to do was what every student was thinking. As I leaped on the stage with the ‘I want a refund’ draped over my university cloak, I heard my mum cheering. The whole auditorium was clapping, laughing and taking photos. It was the confidence boost I needed. Knowing that what I have done was for the sake of fellow students felt empowering. After my performance I quickly dashed off the stage, grabbed my degree certificate, handed back my rented gown and ran out of the building. I was finally free but financially chained.

My protest has seriously struck a chord with fellow students. This issue is not only just something that is occurring at my university, but universities all over the UK. 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. The quality of education has been affected and therefore some form of compensation is warranted. Students are consumers who have paid for a service which has not been delivered. If the principle of paying for goods/services and then asking for a refund if said goods/services are not received is acceptable in any other scenario - why not this one?

I have had some very encouraging messages from fellow UK students, which are driving me to keep this movement going until we all have been heard. I hope that my protest will shine a light on the discussion of compensation for students during the Covid era and 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 next step to move this conversation forward is to join The Student Group Claim. They are magic people doing everything they can to help students across the UK have a voice. I encourage all students who feel like they deserve some form of refund to sign up.

Some form of compensation is deserved to all the students across the country who were forced to pay the full university fees while being a bedroom student. We have been set free into the world with massive debt and a level of education that falls way below the price we’ve been forced to pay. I want a refund.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us