Annex 11

Policy for research degrees by distance learning

1.    Introduction

1.1.  This policy defines the requirements for research degrees that are conducted through distance learning. It should be read in conjunction with the Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes, which sets out the University’s requirements in relation to all research students. The additional considerations that must be taken into account for distance learning are presented below.

2.    Definition of Research Degrees by Distance Learning

2.1.  Students studying for Research Degrees by Distance Learning undertake the majority of their research away from the University either in the UK or overseas. This is combined with compulsory visits to the University and appropriate remote support.

2.2.  Research Degrees by Distance Learning will be appropriate for students where relevant resources are largely available locally or online.

2.3.  The significant factors in determining whether a Research Degree by Distance Learning is appropriate are a) where the primary means of supervision is remote and b) where the student’s research project is not dependent on the University’s on-site facilities.

2.4.  Research students who are away from the University to undertake fieldwork, etc. are not classified as studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning. There are however elements of this policy that may act as good practice for those students, such as how to engage with the University when not on campus.

2.5.  A Research Degree by Distance Learning is not a split-site PhD, where the student spends time at both the University and another institution within a fully collaborative structure. For split-site PhDs a written agreement is always required with the other organisation, while for distance learning the primary relationship is normally with the research student.

2.6.  If however a student who wishes to study by distance learning has a research project that is dependent on an employer or another organisation (for example, a dependency on facilities or data), a written agreement must be put in place (see Section 3).

2.7.  The expectations set out in this policy may also be relevant to educational partnerships developed through other routes, where the location of study is deemed to be distance learning.

3.    Distance learning and partnership agreements

3.1.  A partnership agreement is required for a Research Degree by Distance Learning if the student’s project is dependent on an employer or another organisation (see the Regulations and Code of Practice for Educational Collaborative Arrangements). The agreement may, for example, be limited to covering the dependent use of facilities or data and to any intellectual property issues, depending on the nature of the project and on the University’s relationship with the other organisation.

3.2.  The approval process, which includes a due diligence consideration and an enhanced approval route where a partnership is required (see Section 6), will be completed before any written agreement is set up.

3.3.  If the student is based in, or has access to, an environment that is conducive to research (such as through a research or educational organisation) but is not dependent on it, a letter must be obtained from the organisation to confirm its general support. A partnership agreement is not required in these cases.

4.    Principles

4.1.  A Research Degree by Distance Learning offers a high level of flexibility for the student, but it requires the same commitment for serious study as for any research degree. It is therefore vital that the student is able to make the commitment and that the University is in position to offer the necessary support. 

4.2.  The student must receive clear and realistic advice on expectations in relation to distance learning, including on the level of autonomy placed upon them, on the requirement to attend the University at certain times, and on the extent of support that will be available to them.

4.3.  Students studying through distance learning are required to ensure that they have access to an appropriate local research environment so that they can complete their research project. There must also be access to the relevant research environment at the University through a combination of remote links and scheduled visits.  

4.4.  Schools must decide whether they wish to offer Research Degrees by Distance Learning as an option for their research degree programmes. There may however be cases where it will not feasible, particularly in lab-based disciplines where appropriate local provision is not available or where regular access to University on-site facilities is required. The approval and admissions process (see Section 6) requires a full consideration of whether appropriate access to resources and support is in place.

4.5.  Research Degrees by Distance Learning may be undertaken on either a full-time or part-time basis and are subject to the normal minimum and maximum periods of study set out in the Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes. 

4.6.  Studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning is not permissible if it contravenes the regulations of any funders.

4.7.  Successful students will receive an award from the University of Bristol. The formal degree title for Research Degrees by Distance Learning is the same as for any other location of study as the criteria for the award are identical.

5.    International students

5.1.  Research Degrees by Distance Learning are open to international students, and their visits to the University must be in compliance with the requirements of the UK Government at the time of travel. These requirements may change over the course of the programme. 

5.2.  International students studying for Research Degrees by Distance Learning must follow the current requirements to secure visitor visas for visits to the University. More information is available on the International Student Visa and Compliance webpages.

5.3.  The University cannot guarantee that an international student studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning will be able to secure a visitor visa for each visit. International students will be provided with appropriate documentation from the University to support applications for visitor visas, but the responsibility to meet visa requirements remains with the student. See Section 12 for more information on visits and visas.

6.    Approval and admissions 

6.1.  Schools must decide whether they wish to include a distance learning option for their research degrees in the prospectus and in any promotional materials. Where distance learning is included, an acknowledgement of the requirement for visitor visas for international students and a link to the International Student Visa and Compliance webpages must be included (see Section 5).

6.2.  For schools that have decided to allow Research Degrees by Distance Learning, an individual approval process is followed for each applicant. It is recommended that supervisors and applicants start the process as early as possible as there are a number of factors to consider.

6.3.  Applicants must meet the general admission requirements for research degree programmes. Additional information will also be collected through the application process to ensure that both the prospective student and the school are in a position to meet the extra commitments required for distance learning.

6.4.  Prospective students who wish to study by distance learning must demonstrate the following:

6.5.   Prospective students must articulate their motivation for requesting to study by distance learning.

6.6.   Prospective students are required to confirm that they can meet the financial demands of studying by distance learning, which covers tuition fees and additional costs (see Section 8).

6.7.   If the prospective student’s research is dependent on an employer or another organisation (see Section 3), a letter from the employer/organisation confirming its support for the application and its understanding that a written agreement will be required must be included as part of the application process. The school must also ensure that a due diligence check is undertaken on the organisation. The process to develop the written agreement will be initiated once approval has been given.

6.8.   If the prospective student is employed by, or has a relationship with, an organisation and will benefit from its research environment but where there will be no dependency, a letter from the employer/organisation confirming its general support must be included as part of the application process.

6.9.   As part of the application process, the school must address the resource requirements for supporting the distance learning needs of the student. Appropriate supervision (see Section 9), suitable technology for remote contact and support including access to relevant University systems, and links to the necessary research environment must all be in place. The University’s commitment, including in terms of supervisory support and the resources available to the student, must be fully articulated.

6.10.The details of compulsory visits to the University (see Section 12) and for annual progress reviews (see Section 16) must be agreed as part of the application process. For international students, guidance must be sought from the International Student Visa Advice and Compliance Team on visa requirements for visits.

6.11.The application must be agreed at school, faculty and University levels:

a)               Where the prospective student’s research is not dependent on the an employer or another organisation, the following approval route is followed:

b)               If the prospective student’s research is dependent on using the facilities of another organisation (see Section 3), and a written agreement will therefore have to be developed, an enhanced approval route is in place to match the authorisation required for all new educational collaborative arrangements:

 

6.12. An offer of a place must not be made to the student until formal approval has been authorised. The offer letter will set out the particular expectations placed on the student, including on compulsory visits and on any visa requirements.

7.    Changes in location of study

7.1.  An application to study a Research Degree by Distance Learning is normally only made during the admissions process. In exceptional circumstances, current campus-based research students may be allowed to transfer their location of study to distance learning. In those cases, the additional information required as part of the application process (see Section 6) must still be completed and approved before the transfer will be allowed.

7.2.  For international students who in exceptional circumstances wish to change from studying at the University with a Tier 4 Student Visa to studying by distance learning, advice must be sought from the International Student Visa Advice and Compliance Team. A move to distance learning will require the withdrawal of the University’s sponsorship of the student’s Tier 4 Visa, with the student relying on securing visitor visas for all further visits to the University.

7.3.  Students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning may make a request to change to campus-based study. Possible reasons for such a request may include changes to the student’s personal or employment circumstances. Approval for a change in the location of study must be sought from the Faculty PGR Director, who will make a decision based on the feasibility of the request for both the student (in terms of practical arrangements and any visa requirements) and for the school (in terms of available resources). There is no automatic right to change from distance learning to campus-based study.

7.4.  For international students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning who wish to change to another location of study, advice must be sought from the International Student Visa Advice and Compliance Team. A move to study at the University requires a Tier 4 Student Visa, which is sponsored by the University and is secured in the student’s country of residence.

8.    Student fees and costs

8.1.  The tuition fees for students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning are the same as for campus-based study. Students also have to arrange and cover the costs for their visits to the University, including travel, accommodation and any visa requirements. These additional costs do not form part of the tuition fees and this must be made clear in public information and in communications with prospective students (see Section 15).

9.    Supervision

9.1.  In all cases, the supervisory requirements set out in the Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes must be met.

9.2.  The significant supervisory characteristic for students studying by distance learning will be that they engage with their supervisors mostly through electronic means. There should also be a clear understanding between the student and the supervisors on what constitutes reasonable access if advice is required outside of pre-arranged supervisory meetings.

9.3.  Supervisors for distance learning research students must have an awareness of this particular form of supervision and must have completed a University of Bristol supervisor development session within the last two years.

9.4.  The visits to the University (see Section 12) provide important opportunities for face-to-face supervision.

9.5.  Supervisors must be aware of their responsibilities in relation to students studying by distance learning. The time and commitment required for distance learning supervision will be no less, and may be more, than for supervision of students based at the University.

9.6.  Supervisors must keep a full record of all correspondence with the student, including around progress, and supervisory meetings must be fully documented. Students must keep their own record of their engagement with their supervisors.

9.7.  Where a written agreement is in place, a formal local contact or co-supervisor may be identified to assist in supporting the student. For local co-supervisors, this may be as an honorary member of staff.

9.8.  Where the student is based in an organisation that supports an environment that is conducive to research, an informal local support contact may be available to the student. In these cases, arrangements should be made between the supervisors and the local support contact. It must be made clear that any arrangements are of an informal nature and the local contact is not a member of the supervisory team.

10.    Student support

10.1.    The University has a duty of care for the welfare of its students. The school and the main supervisor must ensure that pastoral considerations are included as part of the supervisory process. It is acknowledged that access to the University’s on-site Student Services may be limited for students not based on campus.

11.    Student representation

11.1.   Students studying for Research Degrees by Distance Learning are included in the University student representation system for research students.

11.2.   Schools must ensure that students studying for Research Degrees by Distance Learning have opportunities to engage with Student-Staff Liaison Committees (SSLCs). It may not be possible for distance learning research students to attend SSLCs in person.

12.    Attendance at the University

12.1.   Students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning are required to visit the University at regular intervals during their normal period of study. The minimum requirement is for a two-week visit each academic year, plus a further visit for the oral examination. The requirement is the same for both full-time and part-time students. In some cases, it may be appropriate for the student to attend the University for further visits and/or for a longer period. Visits must however remain within a distance learning structure and must not impact negatively on any visa requirements. For international students, advice must be sought from the International Student Visa Advice and Compliance Team in these cases.

12.2.   For international students, the school must:

a)       Ensure there is a process in place to ensure that international students present their visitor visas for scanning to the International Student Visa Advice and Compliance team upon arrival for each visit to the UK, prior to any engagement with their studies.

b)       Ensure that students relying on visitor visas are referred to the International Student Visa Advice and Compliance webpages prior to each visit to the University so that they are aware of current visa rules.

c)        Provide a formal visit invitation letter to the student prior to each visit to assist in the visa application process. In some cases, the Faculty is responsible for providing the invitation letter.

12.3.   The first visit to the University allows for a formal induction, coupled with intensive research skills training and individually tailored project development with the supervisory team. Opportunities to engage in research community activities should form part of the visit. Subsequent visits should continue to address the developmental and engagement needs of the student.

12.4.   The school is responsible for ensuring that students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning have access to an appropriate place to work and suitable equipment during visits.

 

12.5.   Any variation from the visit schedule as agreed as part of the approval process (see Section 6) must be agreed by the main supervisor and the School PGR Director (or equivalent). For international students, advice must be sought from the International Student Visa Advice and Compliance team on whether there are any implications related to visa requirements.

12.6.   An exemption for non-attendance at a scheduled visit, where it has not been possible to rearrange the visit, will only be granted in exceptional circumstances with the agreement of the Faculty PGR Director.

12.7.   The University cannot guarantee that international students will be able to secure a visa for each visit (see Section 5). In the event that students are unable to secure a visa, they may have to apply for suspensions of study until their situation is resolved.

13.    Training and resources

13.1.   A student studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning must have access to appropriate research skills training, which is normally required or provided by schools and faculties, and to the University’s Personal and Professional Development Programme. The training may be provided as part of student’s visits to the University and online resources may be available in some areas. Some University-based training may only be available at certain times of the year, which may require a student’s visit to be rearranged.

13.2.   As for all research degrees, supervisors and students must regularly review training needs. For distance learning research students, an initial consideration of training needs must take place before the first visit. As there are only limited online resources, particular consideration must be given to where training has to be undertaken during student visits.  In addition, supervisors and students should explore opportunities to utilise new skills training either during visits or at the student’s home location.

14.    Research community

14.1.   Participating in the research community, including through opportunities to network with their peers, is an important aspect of study for all research students, including those studying by distance learning. Engaging with the research community forms part of the student’s visits to the University, together with online provision and connections to the school’s research community.

15.    Provision of information

15.1.   Public information and communications to prospective students must provide clear and realistic guidance on the expectations for distance learning, including on how the student will engage with the University and details on tuition fees and additional costs (see Section 8).

15.2.   Students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning will have access to online information, containing dedicated guidance for distance learning, access to e-library resources and links to training opportunities.

16.    Progress and review arrangements

16.1.   The annual progress review is equivalent to the process followed for research students based at the University. Students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning may be required to be in attendance at the University for progress reviews (as part of a visit), or the process may be conducted through electronic means. How annual progress reviews will be organised will be set as part of the application process (see Section 6), and any variation from the agreed approach must be approved by the Faculty PGR Director.

17.    Assessment

17.1.   The assessment process, including the submission of the dissertation and the subsequent oral examination, is set out in the Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes.

17.2.   Students studying for a Research Degree by Distance Learning should be informed of the date of the oral examination in good time so that they are able to make appropriate travel, accommodation and any visa arrangements. For international students, this should normally be 12 – 16 weeks in advance.

17.3.   It should be noted that the Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes does allow for oral examinations to be held elsewhere or remotely in exceptional circumstances. Studying by distance learning is not deemed to be exceptional circumstances.

18.    Reviewing provision

18.1.   Schools will monitor the progress and outcomes for students studying for Research Degrees by Distance Learning.

18.2.   The University will maintain an oversight of distance learning for research students and will regularly undertake reviews of provision in this area.

Any written agreements put in place to cover multiple distance learning research students may be subject to the periodic review process (see the Regulations and Code of Practice for Educational Collaborative Arrangements).