- Tia O'Donnell wore a white cloth stating "I want a refund" to her graduation ceremony.
- She told Insider her action demonstrated how she felt about her Central Saint Martins course.
- Making people uncomfortable is a good way to get them to listen, O'Donnell said.
The pandemic forced students to adapt to online learning, but some feel they have received an inferior education as a result.
That's why Tia O'Donnell decided to make a statement about her tuition fees when she attended her graduation ceremony in London earlier this month.
She did a fine arts degree at Central Saint Martins, the world-famous art and design college that is part of the University of the Arts London.
Its graduates include fashion designers Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Marc Jacobs, the sculptor Antony Gormley and the Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker, who namedropped Saint Martins in the band's 1995 hit "Common People".
Loans and tuition fees mean O'Donnell now owes about $60,000 (£50,000).
She decided to "write exactly what other students are feeling," so sprayed "I want a refund" on a piece of white cloth attached to a chain. It was concealed under her robe until it was her time to go on stage to collect her degree certificate.
"I whipped it over, turned to the student behind me and asked whether I put this on the right way," O'Donnell said. The student responded "Oh my God, I love you," and that gave her the boost she needed.
She was terrified, but O'Donnell said she wanted to do it not only for herself but for thousands of other students who "feel so unjust about what's happened." To get people to listen, you have to make them feel uncomfortable in some way, she argued.
"I initially wanted to write something a bit more crude and a bit more offensive, but then I realized that that's not really the right way of portraying a message," she told Insider. "If you want people to listen, then it has to be straightforward."
Students around the world have voiced concern about the impact of online learning on their courses. Some feel they haven't received an education comparable with face-to-face teaching, while others have complained about the lack of practical activities.
O'Donnell said it had always been her dream to go to Saint Martins. "The reason why I signed onto the course was for the ceramic workshops, for the metal workshops, for all these physical, amazing amenities that Saint Martins provides."
She added: "And for that to not be part of my journey whilst I've been there, I feel like it has been completely unjust and I don't feel like I've received the level of education they promised each student at the beginning of our first year."
O'Donnell said she had not heard from Saint Martins since she graduated but vowed to "continue doing things that are for the justice of students. I won't stop until we get some form of compensation."
A University of the Arts London spokesperson said: "We do not underestimate the challenges and upheaval caused by the pandemic. During the pandemic, staff worked tirelessly to ensure that students' learning was supported. We absolutely recognise the rights of individuals to peacefully protest and express themselves and we welcome the opportunity to listen to feedback. We encourage students and graduates to speak with us directly about concerns so we can learn from what was an extraordinarily difficult time for our whole community."