Sivaram Shanmugam

Physiotherapy lecturer Shiv Shanmugam on his passion for teaching and research, and why he feels so at home at Glasgow Caledonian University 


A shiny red cricket ball sits on Dr Sivaram (Shiv) Shanmugam’s office desk. It’s a reminder of his youth in India, when he was a keen schoolboy cricketer, but it also serves the present-day purpose of helping him to concentrate.

'It’s just something that enhances my thinking,’ he laughs. ‘When I work on collaborative projects, especially something creative, I cannot sit in front of a computer and think. I have to pace and walk up and down – that’s when the cricket ball comes in. When you go in to bowl [in cricket] you don’t just simply bowl. You always think about how the batsman is playing, what the next ball will be. It’s like chess in a way – you have to keep thinking.'

Shanmugam, a senior lecturer in physiotherapy at Glasgow Caledonian University, is programme director for the pre-registration MSc and doctorate in physiotherapy, helping to develop the latter. He is also an active researcher, with recent papers on topics that cover both his physiotherapy interests (such as the value of pre-operative physiotherapy for patients undergoing knee surgery) and his fascination with the process of education and training.

He obviously loves his job and is happy to have made Glasgow his home. But it was definitely not the way that the young Shanmugam saw his likely career or life path. 'My brother had trained as a physiotherapist so I knew about physiotherapy, but I got into it through an indirect route,’ he laughs, adding that he had actually wanted to join the National Defence Academy, but his application had been unsuccessful. He had always been interested in healthcare, he says, and understood the value of physiotherapy, especially with his cricketing background.

Shanmugam studied for a bachelor’s degree in physiotherapy at the renowned Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore in India, graduating with the Steve Kolumban memorial gold medal for the best all-round student. He then worked as a senior physiotherapist in the organisation’s rehabilitation institute, where he was treating people with spinal and head injuries: crucially, he was given the opportunity to do research, which really grabbed his interest. That initial exposure to research (using what would now be called task-specific training to try to help people with paraplegia to walk) was to open new opportunities. ‘We published that work and presented at an international conference, then I started applying to do a master’s programme in the UK, which would help me specialise in this sort of movement analysis and biomechanics work.’

Passion for teaching

He moved to Glasgow to do an MSc in bioengineering, supported by a scholarship from the Department for International Development, and then a PhD, moving into research and teaching, first at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, and then at GCU. 

‘I think the teaching passion was always there,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t the best of the teachers in my first job but I think it’s always been there, because my father was a teacher, as was his father, and a few generations before that, although they were in schools. For me it’s a natural and comfortable environment to be in. It’s like you feel you belong.’

He felt at home at GCU immediately. ‘It’s the values system,’ he says simply. ‘I think I’m very clear about the values I have and want and they helped shape my journey. GCU just seemed a natural fit. It’s not corporate values and a shiny brochure – every institution has that, and some of them you know could be contrary to how things are actually done. But in this c department they actually live these values. It’s not ‘mouthspeak’ when they say that student feedback is important; they believe in that, and really actually work with students and find out what they think. When you have that, it’s a good fit.’

His values system involves finding ways of ensuring that students have the best learning experience and environment possible, based on their individual needs. This could include flexibility for a single parent or carer, for example (GCU is particularly strong on widening participation in higher education), and respecting and enabling people’s individual learning styles.

A different breed

It perhaps isn’t surprising that GCU pioneered the pre-registration MSc programme in physiotherapy (see p38), taking on its first students back in the mid-1990s, nor that it is leading the way with a pre-registration doctorate. Although his enthusiasm for the job shines through in all he says, Shanmugam really lights up when he describes this new programme. The first in the UK, it allows students to work towards a doctorate in physiotherapy that confers eligibility for state registration, integrating professional development and research skills training, and was developed in response to a need for a strong evidence base for physiotherapy. It takes 42 months, and the first four students started in 2018.

In developing the course, Shanmugam and his colleagues built on the experience of designing and delivering the MSc. That route to the profession was greeted with some suspicion at first, he concedes, but is now treated as mainstream, and he hopes that this pattern will also apply to the pre-registration doctorate.

'I think we are at the threshold of something new in the profession,’ he says. ‘Our programme is asking if we can deliver a different breed of students, and I think that our programme review has demonstrated that they are different. They [the first doctoral students] are just a year and a half into the programme – they have two more years to do – and you can already see the professional development, and the [academic] writing demonstrate that these students are different.'

Future of the profession

Although, like the pre-registration MSc students, the physiotherapists graduating with a DPT will likely be applying for band 5 posts, Shanmugam hopes that employers will recognise their particular skills and attributes – and might display a bit more imagination about how best to utilise them. ‘Should all students be band 5?’ he asks. ‘If a person has advanced knowledge, skills and behaviours, should that make a difference? They will be band 5 in terms of clinical level, surely, but if they bring in other things, do we create new employment scenarios? Will employers be keen to recruit these students and think about how best they can bridge a gap [in terms of the sort of employees that are needed in the health service]? We have candidates coming up with unique skills, so it will be a shame if it’s all band 5.’

The pre-registration doctoral candidate in physiotherapy isn’t going to be the ‘norm’, or even a common route into the profession. But Shanmugam for one believes that it will have a valuable role as physiotherapy – and the health and care environment more generally – continues to evolve. That’s not to say that physiotherapists taking other routes aren’t up to the challenge of working creatively in these changing environments. ‘We have brilliant undergrad students,’ he says. ‘But we have to be realistic in terms of how the complexity of the profession is moving and the challenges compared to 15-20 years ago. So we need to think about new models of workforce, and new models of career pathways as well.’

It’s an exciting time for physiotherapy education and Shanmugam is clearly relishing the challenge – it looks as though that shiny ‘think-aid’ cricket ball will be much used in the months and years ahead.  

By Jennifer Trueland 

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