England versus Scotland: who's better off?

Published by on 05 August 2011.
Last updated on 05 August 2011

Union flag with pound coins

These days, the Scots and the English generally rub along pretty well, without resorting to the brutal conflicts of centuries gone by - except when it comes to matters of state finance.

This is a dispute that, as a Scot formerly living in England, I'm all too familiar with: when it came to either forking out £25 to get my eyes tested in London or a trip home to go to the optician for free, the latter won out.

So how does financial life differ in Scotland from England, and where do you get the best deal?


Tuition fees were introduced in Britain in September 1998, with students required to pay up to £1,000 a year. But they were promptly abolished in Scotland after devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in July 1999, and replaced by a system of graduate endowments.

So, from 2001/02, Scottish-domiciled students and EU students were liable for a one-off fee of £2,289 following graduation. Even this was scrapped in 2008, restoring free education for current and future students, as well as those who graduated on or after 1 April 2007.

The Student Awards Agency for Scotland stipulates you must be 'ordinarily resident' to qualify for free tuition; it investigates any suspect cases. You don't have to be Scottish by birth, and there's no minimum limit on how long you have to have lived there, but you can't move north of the border for the sole purpose of education.

Meanwhile, in England, annual tuition fees have rocketed to a maximum of £3,375 for the 2011/12 academic year. The government pays these fees upfront, with graduates paying them back once they earn more than £21,000 a year (from 2012).

But they are set to soar further: Westminster MPs voted last December to allow undergraduate fees to rise to £6,000, and even £9,000 in 'exceptional' cases from next year. But only a handful of universities out of more than 130 have so far published plans to charge less than £9,000.

Scottish students who choose to come south to study must stump up the prevailing rates at English universities. In contrast, English students studying in Scotland pay a flat rate of just £1,820 a year.

However, a quirk of the system means that 'rest of EU' students have their fees paid in full by the Scottish government.

Hardly surprising, then, that student numbers in Scotland reached new heights in 2009/10. The number of EU students enrolling rose to a record 15,930 - up 94% on 2000/01.

Critics say this fees 'apartheid' is unsustainable - and that government cuts to higher education budgets mean Scottish universities can't continue to offer free tuition. They point to a funding gap between Scotland and England of between £155 million and £202 million.

However, Scottish education secretary Michael Russell declared in March that this gap was "significant but not insurmountable", and proposed a package of measures, including fee increases for 'rest of UK' students of up to £62 million and raising additional income from EU students to the tune of £22 million, to reduce it.

WINNER: Scotland


In April 2008, England joined the rest of the UK in allowing free bus travel for older residents. It's available to anyone aged 60-plus, with eligibility set to rise in line with the state pension age. You can travel between 9.30am and 11pm on weekdays (or at any time at weekends or public holidays).

Free bus travel throughout Scotland for those over 60 has been available since April 2006. You can travel on any local bus or scheduled long-distance service at any time.

A concessionary travel scheme for young Scottish residents started in January 2007, which allows 16 to 18-year-olds and young full-time volunteers up to the age of 25 a third off bus and rail fares throughout Scotland. Those who live on a Scottish island are entitled to two free return ferry journeys to the mainland each year.

By contrast, in England, those under the age of 26 get a third off all rail journeys and off-peak tube travel with the Young Person's Railcard, which costs £28 a year.

WINNER: Scotland (just)


The benefits system is not devolved - so the Scots and the English have the same entitlements. These include the likes of unemployment benefit, tax credits, maternity allowance and the state pension.



The Scots are clear winners when it comes to healthcare costs. In 2007, a single-item prescription cost £6.85, lowered to £5 in 2008, £4 in 2009 and £3 in 2010.

The phasing-out of charges saved patients who bought an annual pre-payment certificate (PCC) - a money-saving measure for those who need more than four prescriptions in three months, or 14 in 12 months - £180 over three years.

Prescription fees for all patients in Scotland were abolished on 1 April (in line with Northern Ireland and Wales). Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's deputy first minister, said: "When times are tight, the last people who should be paying are the sick."

Scotland has enjoyed free eye examinations since 1 April 2006, and older people have had access to free care since 2002, although, as with tuition fees, the 'ordinarily resident' test applies.

But healthcare costs are largely chargeable south of the border. On the day prescription charges were scrapped in Scotland, they rose in England by 20p an item to £7.40. You can reduce costs with a PCC (£29.10 for three months and £104 for 12), or you may be entitled to free healthcare based on your age, income or medical status.

Children in England under 16 and young people aged 16, 17 and 18 in full-time education get free prescriptions and sight tests. A course of dental treatment that starts before your 18th birthday (or 19th if you're in full-time education) is free - as is the case in Scotland.

The over-60s in England have access to free prescriptions and sight tests, while pregnant women and those who have had a baby in the last 12 months are entitled to free prescriptions and dental treatment.

If you receive income support, working tax credit or child tax credit, you and your family may be entitled to help with some NHS costs. And if you're undergoing treatment for cancer, or have one of a number of medical conditions, you will get free prescriptions.

However, free healthcare in Scotland could be under threat: Lord Sutherland, the architect of universal free personal care for the elderly, said last year that "there are no sacred cows" when it comes to public spending cuts.

WINNER: Scotland


Leave a comment