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Student research

Last updated on 1 Sep 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

In March 2020 we paused student research approvals to create capacity for urgent COVID-19 research. From 1 September 2021, we are introducing new eligibility criteria for standalone student research. The new criteria have been developed following a review, supported by the Wessex Institute at the University of Southampton, with input from students and course leaders across the UK.

The new criteria mean that some master’s level students will be able to apply for ethics review and Health Research Authority (HRA) and Health and Care Research Wales (HCRW) Approval or devolved administration equivalent. Standalone research at undergraduate level that requires ethics review and/or HRA and HCRW Approval (or devolved administration equivalent) cannot take place. Arrangements for doctoral research remain unchanged.

We've given examples of other ways in which students can gain rich and valuable experience of health and care research.

Our student research toolkit shows the type of standalone research projects that students will be able to do from September 2021. Standalone research means research where the student designs the study, submits for approval and conducts the project on their own with supervision. Students and their supervisors will need to use the toolkit and complete before being able to submit an application through IRAS.

Eligibility criteria

Undergraduate level: Health and social care research applications from students working at undergraduate level are no longer being accepted for Research Ethics Committee (REC) review; HRA and HCRW Approval; and/or Research and Development (R&D) study-wide review in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Master's level: Applicants should complete the student research toolkit in the first instance, to check eligibility. Some health and social care research applications from students working at master's level are no longer being accepted for Research Ethics Committee (REC) review; Health Research Authority and Health and Care Research Wales (HRA and HCRW) Approval; and/or R&D study-wide review in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Doctorate level: Applicants are eligible to complete health and social care research, subject to relevant approvals being in place. Applicants may find it useful to complete parts of the toolkit to understand if HRA and HCRW Approval (or equivalent in Northern Ireland and Scotland) and/or NHS Research ethics review is required.

Student research toolkit

Our student research toolkit shows the type of standalone research projects that students will be able to do from September 2021.

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. For undergraduate and master’s courses, the supervisor should always take the role of chief investigator. For PhD courses, the student may take the role of chief investigator if the supervisor and the sponsor agree that this is appropriate.

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

Other ways for students to experience health research

The UK Policy 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.

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.

We 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
  • Shadowing of a range of research teams roles, for example statisticians, trial managers, data analysts.

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, like the examples in our case study section.

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.

Back to research planning