Student reps return

The CSP is relaunching its student reps programme, with an updated approach that will provide student members with support, throughout their studies, Tamsin Starr reports

Student Reps return

Everyone knows that the pandemic turned life upside down for students. The usual opportunities to forge friendships, build embryonic professional networks and enjoy in-person teaching and learning came to an abrupt halt. While universities across the country made herculean efforts to continue teaching and offer the opportunity for students to connect virtually, it fell short of the traditional university experience. 

Student Rep

Similarly, many student societies worked hard to maintain contact between students and the CSP during the pandemic. They were an avenue which had become even more crucial since a sharp increase in student places prompted the CSP to work with student physiotherapy societies instead of year reps – in effect scrapping the latter role. The Student Reference Group worked intensively too, to contribute to the work of the CSP and represent student members.

As the pandemic receded and its profound effects on relationship building became apparent, it became clear to the CSP that a more equitable solution, enabling broader and more intensive coverage across higher education institutions once the pandemic was over, was needed. 

‘We got it wrong,’ admits CSP policy and engagement director Rob Yeldham. 

‘We had no contact with some places, because maybe they haven’t got a student society. We couldn’t go in and see them because of Covid and then relationships weakened.’

The CSP is keen to learn from this. ‘As a learning organisation we were happy to recognise we got it wrong, and make a change,’ adds Rob. 

‘We’ve already put in some extra staffing. It’s crucial to invest in this the same way we’ve been doing with our diversity and professional networks.’

The good news is the student reps programme is relaunching this month. It offers support, learning, additional skills and resources from CSP experts to a rep on each year of every physiotherapy course in the country. Regional networks of these reps will work together on everything from problem solving to joint initiatives, while linking in with regional CSP structures.

In a departure from its predecessor, the relaunched programme will be more flexible, allowing students to fit the demands of the role around their studies. 

‘We’ve realised that you can only ask people to do what they reasonably can, and only they can judge what that is,’ says Rob. 

‘It’s a voluntary role, so people are going to do it in different ways. And we’re designing it in a way that allows them to do that.’

Educators have welcomed the news. Programme lead for MSc physiotherapy (pre-registration) at the University of Birmingham Dr Glykeria Skamagki says: ‘It recognises the value of student input and the importance of supporting students in their professional development. 

‘By offering support, advice, and training, the CSP is not only investing in the future of the profession but also fostering a stronger and more collaborative physiotherapy community.’ 

‘If you want to stand out and make a difference, be a student rep’

Iona Bateman is vice-chair of the CSP DisAbility Network
Iona Bateman vice-chair of the CSP DisAbility Network

Iona Bateman is vice-chair of the CSP DisAbility Network, equality, diversity and belonging officer in the Student Reference Group, student officer for the Annual Representatives Conference agenda committee, a member of the professional committee and student officer for the South-Central regional network.

‘It has definitely blown my horizons open,’ University of Southampton student Iona says of her official roles with the CSP. 

‘I’ve discovered so much about myself – and realised how much physiotherapy has to offer through networking with so many incredible physiotherapists and students, which has increased my confidence and prospects.’

She praises the 1-2-1 support by email and WhatsApp from CSP facilitators that has helped her grow as a person and a professional. 

As a student, you can feel a lot of impostor syndrome, so to have these amazing people that support you and build you up is really vital

‘Any time I had an issue, I knew I could go to them, and they would help me find a solution.’

This was particularly important to her as someone with a disability, whose first contact with the CSP was when an admissions tutor at a different university tried to discriminate against her.

While this ignited her passion for advocacy and representation, CSP roles offered opportunities to explore this on a national stage. 

‘These opportunities help you to establish your presence in the physiotherapy world,’ she says of speaking on disability rights at UK conferences. 

‘And I can’t stress enough the benefits of networking with so many inspirational physiotherapists and other students.’

The experience has been life changing. ‘I feel so much more confident,’ she says. 

‘I went from thinking, “No one’s going to employ me” to “I have so many more opportunities than I ever thought I would”.’ 

So much so, she’s yet to be turned down for a single opportunity she’s applied for this year, from overseas elective placement funding to junior research fellowships. 

‘I’ve used a lot of examples from my roles with the CSP in applications, which I think demonstrates just how beneficial those skills are to employers.’

These transferrable skills also help in your practice, ‘So many of the qualities you develop in these roles will benefit you as a physiotherapist, such as event organisation, project management and communication skills that are effective in building up communities and networks with practising physios or stakeholders,’ she says.

‘You get exposed to new research, too, and learn about the full breadth of physiotherapy practice.’

It also provides leadership opportunities, which many students find difficult to demonstrate particularly on their Common Placement Assessment Forms. 

‘I’ve used examples from my CSP roles while on placement to demonstrate leadership skills on the CPAF,’ Iona explains. 

‘Which can be some of the more challenging criteria to meet.’

She jokes that she is now the first to volunteer to present on the course – ‘it feeds back in’– and she takes her job of bringing the student voice to the profession seriously.

‘Getting involved makes you a part of the physiotherapy family,’ she explains. And the benefits work both ways. ‘If you want to stand out and make a difference, then being student rep is the first step on that journey, and the CSP will fully support you in any areas that you’re interested in. 

‘I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today, if it hadn’t been for taking that first step, then every opportunity along the way.’

‘It is vital to be in touch with the CSP from day one’

Cassie Hayes is a senior physiotherapy lecturer at Coventry University.

‘I think it is vital, for professional development, to be in touch with the CSP from day one of the course,’ says Cassie.

Cassie Hayes is a senior physiotherapy lecturer at Coventry University
Cassie Hayes senior physiotherapy lecturer at Coventry University

‘Not only for the practical advice and support, or the newsletters, but because you learn so much about the profession through the CSP.’

With career choices proliferating, the exposure to new and developing directions in physiotherapy is key. 

‘It helps with developing your own identity as a physiotherapist throughout the course and allows you to explore the boundaries of the profession by reading and understanding about others’ roles within our work.’

This also helps new students in particular embed best practice: ‘The CSP sets out our professional values clearly and is referred to often and frequently throughout the course to help set the aims, objectives and standards expected of its members.’

She welcomes the increased flexibility of the student rep role, which she believes will benefit apprentice physiotherapy students in particular. 

‘With the pressures of placement and assessment, a flexible approach may make the task more manageable and attractive to a student who may be considering the role,’ she says.

‘The apprentice physio students have an additional pressure of trying to fit their busy one day at university around their full time job, and inflexibility in training and support would just lead to a lack of reps from that pool of students.’

First-hand experience of working with the reps has left quite an impression on Cassie with regard to the skill sets you can develop. 

‘Within any meetings I am in with CSP reps they are always professional, excellent communicators, and thoroughly respectful – even in difficult conversations. They represent the profession very well.’

‘This is how we get the student voice into decisions’

Rob Yeldham, director of strategy, policy and engagement at the CSP
Rob Yeldham, director of SPED at the CSP

Rob Yeldham, director of strategy, policy and engagement at the CSP

Students are vital to enhancing the two-way engagement between the CSP and its members, Rob says, as he recalls the positive impact of the CSP’s previous student reps programme. 

‘It gave us eyes and ears on the ground, so if there were issues in particular places, we would hear about it, and could act on it,’ he says.

‘Also, our student reps were among the most active in getting information from the CSP back out to our members, and working with colleagues to do that. We have 64,000 members and 160 staff so the more the student reps could do, the more we could do for our members.’

Lighting the passion for advocacy early on also paves the way for lifelong activism – to the benefit of all members. 

‘A lot of people who started out as student reps went into diverse roles – workplace stewards, health and safety reps, or in the regional networks. So it was a really important pipeline for active volunteers in the organisation,’ adds Rob. 

There was a bigger picture benefit, too, in allowing those who were the future of the profession to bring their fresh perspectives to its development. 

‘This is how we got the student voice into our decision making,’ says Rob of the reps programme. ‘We think bringing it back is the best way of having that two-way feedback.’

He emphasises students’ key role in how the programme – particularly the regional umbrella – will develop. 

We want to hear from student reps, as they are appointed locally, on what they want and need

‘So, they may want to stick to a tiered structure, where you have a local rep who connects with their regional rep who works closely with our Student Reference Group. Or they might want to form a student network as we have for our associate members.’

As you may expect from one of the programme’s chief advocates, Rob lists several benefits to gaining skills from volunteering and becoming a student rep, benefits which then last years into a career trajectory. 

‘They’re the kind of people who have become service leads at a much younger age, and have seen their careers accelerate,’ he says of those who started out as reps and worked their way up to national roles. 

‘The skills, contacts and knowledge gained from these roles will stand you in good stead not just this year, but right into your career.’

‘This can be a win-win for students, universities, and the CSP’

Dr Glykeria Skamagki is an assistant professor in musculoskeletal physiotherapy and the programme lead for MSc physiotherapy (pre-registration) at the University of Birmingham.

While Iona emphasises that students can get involved ‘as much or as little as you like’ in a CSP role, course leaders emphasise that your studies – and future career – can get super charged with membership alone.

Dr Glykeria Skamagki
Dr Glykeria Skamagki

‘Being a student member (especially if you are an international student) can provide students with a wealth of resources, including access to the latest research, networking opportunities, and professional development resources,’ says Glykeria.

‘It can also give them a sense of belonging to a professional community and a broader perspective on the physiotherapy profession.’

She calls the relaunch of the student reps programme ‘a commendable initiative’ and looks forward to it being extended to courses including the MSc programmes. 

‘Including representatives from all level programmes will create a diverse community.’ Far from worrying that extracurricular roles in the CSP may form a distraction from their studies, Glykeria believes it can be the perfect complement. 

‘It’s understandable that educators might be concerned about the potential impact on students’ studies,’ she says.

‘However, involvement in the CSP can complement and enhance their academic learning. It provides real-world experience, develops transferable skills, and offers a broader perspective on the profession.

Involvement with the CSP can provide students with unique opportunities for professional and personal growth. They can gain leadership and communication skills, build a professional network, and gain a deeper understanding of the physiotherapy profession.

It is vital that as the future of the profession, students take the chance to shape its direction, she argues. 

‘They also have the chance to influence the future of the profession by voicing their ideas and concerns. They can get involved in projects and conferences and not only support their university community but make a change to the student community of physiotherapists as a whole.

‘It’s also worth noting that employers often value such experiences, as they demonstrate initiative, leadership, and a commitment to the profession.’

Glykeria points to the benefits for one of her students, who leads on events for the SRG. 

‘This role involved supporting the planning and promotion of events that the CSP has to offer as well as working alongside physiotherapy societies across the United Kingdom,’ she explains. 

‘He was aiming to gain experience of working with an array of stakeholders, having run successful events, and importantly representing the organisation at a national scale.’

This work can also leave a lasting legacy. Her student has set goals for his role – to create ‘a more connected student network, provide value to the CSP student membership, and elevate the student voice within the CSP networks.’

There are benefits for the academic community in having student reps, too. ‘These programmes provide valuable opportunities for students and strengthen the relationship between universities and professional organisations,’ Glykeria says.

Though she emphasises the right support must be in place to ensure the programme can reap maximum benefits. 

‘With the right support and guidance, students can balance their academic responsibilities with their role as CSP representatives. This includes recognising their contributions and integrating the role into the academic environment. With this in place, the student reps programme can be a win-win for students, universities, and the CSP.’

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