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Student research

Last updated on 24 May 2021

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.

New eligibility criteria from 1 September 2021

The HRA and the devolved administrations, supported by the Wessex Institute at the University of Southampton, have reviewed their approach to study approval for student research.

The review aimed to ensure students have the best learning experience of health and social care research, and to reduce the time that the HRA, DAs and NHS Research Ethics Committees (RECs) spend advising on and reviewing student applications.

In March 2020 we paused student research approvals to create capacity for urgent COVID-19 research. Now, from 1 September 2021, we are introducing new eligibility criteria for standalone student research.

The new criteria mean that some master’s level students will be able to apply for ethics review and HRA/HCRW Approval or devolved administration equivalent. Standalone research at undergraduate level that requires ethics review and/or HRA/HCRW Approval (or devolved administration equivalent) cannot take place. Arrangements for doctoral research remain unchanged. Full details are in table one - permitted student research table. We’ve also made it clear when students are able to take the role of Chief Investigator, see table two - which type of students may act as Chief Investigator.

It is possible for students to learn about health and social care research without completing standalone projects. Looking at other ways to build skills and experience better reflects modern research and emphasises team science. View the video of our event ‘Exploring good practice in Student Research’ to hear from course leaders about how successful these alternative approaches have been (registration is required to view) or read our website for further information and ideas https://www.hra.nhs.uk/student-research/.

We are giving notice now so that course leaders and students have time to prepare for the new arrangements, including ensuring that any changes to institutional policies and procedures are made.

If you have any queries about the eligibility criteria, please contact queries@hra.nhs.uk.

Table 1 - Permitted student research

This table shows the type of stand-alone research projects that students will be able to do from September 2021. Stand-alone research means research where the student designs the study, submits for approval and conducts the project on their own with supervision. Please check what types of research require the different types of review.

Type of review Undergraduate or equivalent Master's or equivalent students on non-health and care courses or in a university department not active in health and social care research Master's or equivalent students on health and care courses in health and care research active university departments Health and care professionals or trainees on master's or equivalent courses in health and care research-active university departments PhD/ doctoral level
Non-REC* no no yes yes yes
Proportionate REC review no no only if no other suitable alternative to obtain educational experience yes yes
Full REC review no no no yes yes

*No ethical review is required under the terms of GAfREC. Research involves the NHS/HSC so falls within the scope of HRA/HCRW Approval or Devolved Administration equivalent.

Table 2 - Which type of students may act as Chief Investigator

Type of student Undergraduate or equivalent Master's or equivalent Phd / doctoral level
Act as Chief Investigator? no no yes

Current eligibility criteria during COVID-19 pandemic until 31 August 2021

We are not currently reviewing any undergraduate and master’s student research projects.

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 permissions 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.

Current expectations of students and supervisors until 31 August 2021

  • 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. 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.

Other ways for students to experience health research

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 permissions. 

  • 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
  • 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 (the Integrated Research Application System)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 communications@hra.nhs.uk and we will share them with the wider community.

Measuring medicine burden in people living with HIV in Kent - a student research case study

One research project involving students at the University of Kent and Greenwich is a study looking at medicine burden for people living with HIV in Kent and Medway.

Dr Rebecca Cassidy, Centre for Health Services Studies (CHSS), University of Kent and Dr Barbra Katusiime, Medway School of Pharmacy, Universities of Kent and Greenwich, explain how they have organised this.

Exploring Good Practice in Student Research workshop videos

The recording of the virtual event Exploring Good Practice in Student Research, held on 27 January 2021, is now available on HRA’s Learning Management System.
The video has been divided into four parts.

To access the videos, you will need to register for an account on the Learning Management System.
We recommend that you click ‘Enrol’ before watching and click ‘Complete’ once finished to create a record of your learning.

Student research case study: University of Kent - Centre for Health Services Studies - MPharm

Students on the University of Kent’s MPharm course can opt to take part in a choice of group projects right across the spectrum of pharmacy – an approach that course leaders moved to in 2018. Previously students had mostly done individual research.

Students in meeting

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.

Guidance for supervisors

UK Council for Graduate Education

The UK Council for Graduate Education has advice about good supervisory practice for student research.

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.

Back to research planning