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Student research

Last updated on 26 Aug 2020

Student research means studies which are primarily for the purpose of obtaining an educational qualification. 

Studies where the main purpose is to undertake specific research – and the educational qualification is secondary – do not fall into this category.

Update on decision to pause reviewing applications for undergraduate and master's student projects during the COVID-19 pandemic

This guidance relates to health and social care research projects conducted for educational purposes by undergraduate and master’s students.

In March 2020,  the HRA and devolved administrations announced our decision to stop reviewing applications for individual undergraduate and master’s student projects until further notice, while we prioritised the urgent review of COVID-19 studies. This was also due to the significant pressure on the NHS/HSC, limiting their ability to participate in research studies which were unrelated to COVID-19.

For now, our existing position of not reviewing applications for individual undergraduate and master’s student projects remains in place. This means that any student project requiring approvals will not be able to proceed.

In the autumn we will publish our new guidelines for student research for consultation. Students, research supervisors and HEIs will be invited to share their opinions and help shape our framework.

No new applications can be submitted for:

  • Research Ethics Committee (REC) review
  • Health Research Authority or Health and Care Research Wales (HRA and HCRW) Approval
  • R&D study-wide review in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

 Applications for the following types of educational projects will continue to be accepted as normal:

  • PhD and doctoral level student projects
  • Undergraduate and master’s level student projects, where students are involved in contributing to elements of a project or programme. These studies should be led by research active course leaders or supervisors with recent and significant experience of approval processes, and should not put unnecessary pressure on the health or social care system during this time of national crisis.

Applicants should include with their application assurance in principle from the relevant NHS/HSC R&D offices or clinical research network that their study is able to proceed. Even if projects are approved, it cannot be guaranteed that NHS/HSC organisations will be able to support such studies, even if in-principle agreement was given prior to submission.

Alternatives to conducting research which requires ethics review

It is important to students, educators, and employers (research, health, social care and wider) that undergraduate and master's students gain an understanding of and experience in research. Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, it is still important that students have a good experience and achieve the desired and required learning outcomes.

We therefore recommend the following (non-exhaustive list) of alternatives to research requiring REC or R&D study-wide review. 

Research alternatives include:

  • Research in areas other than health or social care
  • Health or social care research that doesn’t involve patients, service users, NHS staff as participants or identifiable samples/tissue or identifiable data
  • Secondary research that does not require REC or R&D study-wide review such as literature, rapid, scoping or systematic reviews.

Non-research alternatives include:

  • Public/stakeholder involvement that does not require REC or R&D study-wide review and does not itself put individuals at risk or put pressure on health or social care services
  • Developing a proposal/plan/strategy for good public involvement and/or dissemination
  • Health and social care project protocol/proposal development (stopping short of submission). IRAS itself can be used to prepare an application form and export this to PDF (without submitting for review)
  • Mock review panels. Having developed a project protocol/proposal (or using pre-existing exemplars), students could form a mock REC and/or research funding committee, mentored by experienced researchers, and play the role of both applicant and committee member. This would give students a much richer and more rounded experience of research and research governance. 

Many of the above alternatives could be developed in teams, with students taking on different roles within a multi-disciplinary team. This would provide a better experience of modern team science than many stand-alone student projects.

We have collected the above examples through our stakeholder discussions and welcome any further alternatives. Please share your examples with Professor Matt Westmore (m.j.westmore@soton.ac.uk) who is leading on this work for the HRA, and we will share them with the wider community.

Students in meeting

Background to this statement

The HRA and devolved administrations have been working with stakeholders to explore alternatives to health and social care research for some students, that can lead to a better student learning experience. This work pre-dated and was unrelated to the COVID-19 situation. The intention was that the recommendations of this work would be released over the spring and summer months.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant there was a critical need to reduce the number of health and social care research projects  undertaken for educational purposes to take account of:

  • RECs and R&D study-wide review services across the UK needing to prioritise the review of COVID-19 related projects and amendments
  • The review of other studies (beyond COVID-19) needing to be managed for staff and committee member shortages due to sickness, self-isolation or prioritising frontline health and social care roles
  • Health and social care professionals, systems or resources needing to support student projects, to prioritise frontline services
  • Teaching staff (supervisors and chief investigators for student projects) having capacity to adequately supervise students
  • Students being unlikely to be able to work in health and social care settings during the pandemic, and therefore unlikely to be able to complete their projects.

The recommendations and consultation over these proposals will now take place in autumn 2020.

Expectations of students and supervisors

  • Undergraduate and master’s students should not be submitting any new applications for individual research projects that require REC or R&D study-wide review.
  • Undergraduate and master’s students with studies already approved should check with the relevant NHS/HSC organisations locally about whether or not their research activity may continue, if not already communicated. Please also see the guidance published at www.hra.nhs.uk/coronavirus.
  • Projects that support a number of students at different stages and where the chief investigator is an experienced health and/or social care researcher may still be considered (projects within an overarching programme of research). This position is articulated in the published UK policy framework for health and social care research (para 9.3) and the Student Research webpage on the HRA website. It is also included in the content of the e-learning module for sponsors and academic supervisors. Such projects must still ensure that they do not put unnecessary pressure on the health or social care system at a time of national emergency. Applicants should include with their application assurance in principle from the relevant NHS/HSC R&D offices or clinical research network that their study is able to proceed.
  • Chief investigators of research projects for PhD studies may still apply for REC or R&D study-wide review. We ask that you consider the timing of both your submission and the start of your research. If it is possible to delay either and reduce the immediate pressure on the approval service or health and/or social care system, we ask you to do so.

Resources for students

Our bite size eLearning module explains what HRA and Health and Care Research Wales (HCRW) Approval are, what types of research they apply to and what exemptions there are. 

It takes approximately 10 minutes to complete.

Guidance for sponsors of student research

The UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care stipulates that universities and colleges are expected to accept the role of sponsor for all educational research conducted by their own students, unless the student is employed by a health or social care provider that prefers to do this.

Sponsors of educational research should ensure that their supervisors can and do carry out the activities involved in fulfilling this role. It is expected that the sponsor will provide any advice and support to students using this process.

Our bite-size eLearning module explains the supervisor’s role in supporting student research.

It takes approximately five minutes to complete.

Guidance for supervisors

Student roles and responsibilities

The UK Policy framework stipulates that students should not normally take the role of chief investigator at any level of study, as this function should be undertaken by supervisors or course leaders, although exceptions are made in some circumstances.

Supervisors are encouraged to develop and lead research projects that individual students can contribute to, always acknowledging their contribution.

The framework further states that sponsors can create a ‘research culture’ by promoting students’ awareness of health and social care research, research ethics and public involvement, and enabling them to develop skills in research methods.

Setting up research sites

Our bite-size eLearning module provides guidance for students and supervisors in setting up research sites in participating NHS organisations in England and Wales.

It takes approximately 10 minutes to complete.

Back to research planning