European testing ground for educational innovation enters new phase

Jan Haarhuis: "CHARM-EU yields structural collaboration and renewal"

A European university that embraces change, in which international societal challenges are tackled, boundaries are being crossed and in which the best of universities from across Europe comes together. Utopia? No, this university already exists and Utrecht University is one of the driving forces: CHARM-EU (Challenge-driven, Accessible, Research-Based and Mobile European University). The first students are about to finish their master's programmes.

When in 2017 the European Commission called for transformation of higher education and for more European collaboration, Utrecht University did not hesitate. The call seamlessly matched and matches its ambitions. Meetings with (potentially) like-minded institutions followed after which  Utrecht joined forces with the University of BarcelonaTrinity College Dublin, the University of Montpellier and Eötvös Loránd Boedapest (ELTE). A new European University was born.

Of course it takes a lot of hard work, but in the differences also lies the strength.

Might sound easy. But really it’s quite a challenge to – in a short period of time – create a joint and innovative programme with five universities that differ from each other in educational system, culture, language, geographical positioning and economic and historical perspective. Nevertheless, it worked out very well, says Jan Haarhuis, programme manager educational innovation strategic alliances at Utrecht University. And in 2023 yet another three partners will be joining: Åbo Akademi University from Finland, Julius Maximilians Würzburg University and the Hochschule Ruhr West from Germany. Jan Haarhuis: Of course it takes a lot of hard work, but in the differences also lies the strength.

Portret van Jan Haarhuis.
Jan Haarhuis, programme manager educational innovation strategic alliances

What makes CHARM-EU special?

Haarhuis: CHARM-EU was among the first European alliances to be approved (2019) and was the first to have a European master’s programme (Global Challenges for Sustainability) accredited (2021). Before we started we decided that, íf we’d set up a new university, we would also develop a new didactic concept. CHARM is unique in this sense. Now there are a lot more European alliances, but they mainly focus on sharing courses and making it easier for students to take classes at other universities. They work with their own, existing educational concept and haven’t come up with something totally new, like we have.

We aimed high and we knew it would be complicated to, in three years’ time, develop a new didactic concept, design a master’s programme, get it accredited, and also provide the actual education. But thanks to the efforts and support of a great number of colleagues at Utrecht University and all the alliance partners, we did it.

What does this new didactic CHARM-EU concept look like?

It is transdisciplinary education provided by teachers from various fields, in which co-creation with external stakeholders like companies and social organisations plays a central role. From interdisciplinary perspectives, students collaborate with each other and with those stakeholders, working on real societal challenges. Challenge Based Learning is also one of the educational principles we drew up and that are very specific for CHARM-EU. Among the other educational principles are: research-led, sustainability, technology-enhanced, student-centred and inclusivity. Furthermore we implemented programmatic assessment. This is a holistic approach in which student’s whole professional and personal development is being looked at.

All teachers involved have been trained to provide education according to the CHARM-EU concept. To be able to set the tone, Trinity and Utrecht have thereafter taken on the first semester.

Where in CHARM-EU can Utrecht’s DNA primarily be found?

In educational innovation. Utrecht is a real frontrunner when it comes to this. The Utrecht Education Model is named and praised everywhere: small scaled education, student centred, interdisciplinary. We also have a development route (CEUT) that goes back a long way, in which groups of academics focus more on education across faculty boundaries. Moreover, with Educate-it Utrecht University has been investing in facilitating teachers in educational innovation through technology, for eight years.

Utrecht is a real frontrunner in educational innovation. The Utrecht Education Model is named and praised everywhere: small scaled education, student centred, interdisciplinary.

For us the innovation step in CHARM-EU is therefore not as big as for other partners. We saw this, for instance, during the development stage when we held a forum with students form all the involved institutions and they were asked to work in small groups. Our students thought this was perfectly normal, but other students asked: Small groups? How does that work? Ah, we actually have to come up with input? The hierarchical relations and the way of interacting with each other differed tremendously.

But if we’ve already come this far with our education, what does CHARM-EU bring Utrecht University?

Well, as said, we didn’t implement our didactic model one-to-one. Although for us it is a smaller step, the CHARM-EU educational concept is also relatively new to us. The transdisciplinary education can serve as an example to UU. Seventy international students, equally divided between five campuses, synchronically work together in the master’s programme via the concept of the Virtual Campus and Hybrid Classroom (thirty percent of the students are from the Netherlands). This will provide us with a lot of valuable experience.

Moreover, there are other aspects to it than just the didactics. For example inclusivity and mobility, for both which ELTE deserves all the credits. This way each partner provides valuable input. It is a real team effort. All institutions were involved in all the parts. Hard work, but also extremely educational and enlightening. It truly yields structural European collaboration.

It is a real team effort. All institutions were involved in all the parts. Hard work, but also extremely educational and enlightening. It truly yields structural European collaboration.

Additionally interesting about CHARM-EU is that it allows us to implement things quite quickly. This is because we are not hindered by all sorts of existing structures. And this makes it possible to be a testing ground that clears the way to swift experiments.

The first phase of the project is now about to end, three new partners are joining and there is new financial support. What are the plans for the future of CHARM-EU?

We also want to transfer the didactic concept to bachelor education for students of the participating institutions. Furthermore, we want to work on a team-based, transdisciplinary PhD concept and we want to further develop lifelong learning internationally. So there is still a lot to do. More and more universities are now letting us know that they would like to join our alliance. So, interesting to maybe have even more European cultures added to CHARM-EU in the future.


During a conference on December 13th and 14th in Barcelona, the first four years of CHARM-EU will be reviewed, among other things, and attendees will take a close look at the future of European higher education. Several panel sessions can be joined online as well (see programme).  


Nature recently published a correspondence on CHARM-EU and the master’s programme Global Challenges for Sustainability. Three of the authors are from Utrecht: Jan Haarhuis, Niels Bovenschen and Michael Schakelaar.

More about CHARM-EU

If you’d like to learn more about CHARM-EU, for instance about research arm TORCH, please visit the CHARM-EU-website. Questions about CHARM-EU and Utrecht University can be sent to or you can contact Rianne Giethoorn, project manager, Jan Haarhuis, project director and leader of the package teaching and learning strategies, Frank Miedema, chair of the CHARM-EU steering committee and strategic leader op CHARM-EU.