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A comparative study on turnaround leadership in higher education and the successful implementation of the UN’s sustainable development goals

Majid Ghasemy (National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Gelugor, Malaysia)
James A. Elwood (Department of Interdisciplinary Mathematical Sciences, Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan)
Geoffrey Scott (Western Sydney University, Penrith, Australia)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 15 September 2022

Issue publication date: 3 February 2023




Given the increased emphasis on embedding the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) in the curriculum, research, engagement activities and operations of higher education institutions, this comparative study aims to replicate an earlier international study of Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education (TLSHE) in the unique context of Malaysia and Japan. This paper also presents a case for closer focus on developing Education for Sustainability (EfS) leaders in institutions of higher learning.


This study is a quantitative comparative research. The authors collected data for EfS-related variables from lecturers affiliated with Malaysian and Japanese public and private universities. Building on the data and results from the TLSHE study, this study made a series of within- and between-sample descriptive comparisons from different angles and levels. To generalize the findings, this study used gender and experience outside higher education as control variables and compared the academics from the Malaysian and the Japanese institutions through the path modeling framework.


The comparisons showed that except for two domains, namely, contextual factors influencing EfS leadership and the EfS leadership development approaches, the means of all other domains based on the data collected from the Malaysian sample were the highest, followed by means from the international TLSHE sample, and finally the means from the Japanese sample. This study also observed that transparency, engagement with EfS initiatives at different levels, passion for teaching and learning, and creative and lateral thinking were among the top indicators. The inferential tests revealed significant differences between the academics from Japan and Malaysia as well.

Practical implications

The findings of the analyses can be used to ensure that the selection and development of EfS leaders (in this case, lecturers who may be formal or informal EfS leaders), not just at the central but at the local level in the distinctive context of Japan and Malaysia, focus on what counts and the good ideas embodied in the 17 UN SDGs are actually put into practice. This study has also highlighted the policy implications with respect to the gender and the previous work experience of lecturers outside higher education sector in more detail.


This study compares the perceptions of two samples of academics from Asian countries with the perceptions of the international TLSHE sampled EfS leaders in terms of EfS leadership-related issues and therefore, increases the awareness of academic community in this regard. It also highlights the role of lecturers (e.g. professors) as intellectual academic leaders in achieving SDGs. Moreover, this study shows that lecturers’ gender and previous work experience outside higher education should be considered when developing and implementing policies on EfS leadership.




This study replicates the original TLSHE study (Scott et al., 2012) funded by the Australian Government’s Office for Learning and Teaching. Two research assistants were employed and paid for their service to this project. In the process of data collection, the authors provided the 664 participants with a token of their appreciation (RM 20 or 500 JY) as outlined below:

  • A total of 175 academics (22 from the Japanese and 153 from the Malaysian universities) received their tokens of appreciation.

  • A total of 481 academics asked the authors to denote to a charity on their behalf. Therefore, the authors donated an amount of RM 9,620 (RM 20 × 481) to the Iranian Children’s Cancer Society (IKKH e.V.), a charitable society founded in 2009 in Hamburg, Germany (

  • Eight academics asked the authors to send them the voucher, but their email addresses had not been captured by the system during the data collection. Therefore, because the authors did not have any records of these scholars, they donated an amount of RM 160 (RM 20 × 8) to the same charity on their behalf.

Funding: This project was funded by the Sumitomo Foundation Japan (Grant No. 198933).

Declaration of conflicting interests: The authors declare no conflict of interest of any kind related to this article.

Ethics: The performed procedures were in accordance with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments, or comparable ethical standards. No consent was required, since the participation was voluntary, information was anonymized, and the paper does not include images that may identify the person.

Data availability statement: The data have been provided in descriptive tables throughout the manuscript (results section).


Ghasemy, M., Elwood, J.A. and Scott, G. (2023), "A comparative study on turnaround leadership in higher education and the successful implementation of the UN’s sustainable development goals", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 24 No. 3, pp. 602-636.



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