State of the unions: The cheap beer and hep band experience is spreading as student unions open their doors to a wider public. Alister Morgan reports

University . . . the best days of your life? Perhaps it's the sporting opportunities that you remember; or maybe those two- hour philosophy lectures on Wittgenstein? Whatever the case, few graduates can forget that unique blend of college discos and cheap alcohol. For many, such nights are little more than a blurred memory (more often the result of past inebriation than passed time). Now many of those spartan gym halls you left behind have been transformed into some of the nation's most attractive night-spots.

As many student unions expand, their individual entertainment programmes are often at the forefront of national trends. Consequently, the more successful unions, like Manchester, Sheffield and Swansea, compete directly with other night-spots by operating under 'open licences', and often dominate the night-life in their particular city or town.

Cardiff University Union runs an extensive entertainment programme that varies from live acts to discos and can boast INXS and the Crash Test Dummies as two of the numerous bands to have performed there. Five pounds will secure you admission to the union's fortnightly rave - roughly the cost of three lemonades in a London club. However, the attraction of student venues extends far beyond the fiscal. Mick Bowles, assistant entertainment manager at Cardiff, believes college venues offer a different atmosphere from other clubs. 'The focus is on fun. As a student union we take care of our members and this is translated to our non-student customers.'

King's College London Student Union has attracted names like Paul Weller, Paul Oakenfold and Tim Westwood to its venue, Tutu's (named after a famous Theology graduate, one Desmond). In addition to regular live entertainment, the union also provides a club night on Saturdays and manages to keep admission prices to a fraction of what other city-based clubs charge. 'You feel it's safer and friendlier at a student venue,' Andrea Hotter, vice- president of KCLSU, observes. 'You know that the people there will just be out to have a good night.'

The new breed of student venue often possesses state-of-the-art sound and lighting while rarely imposing any kind of dress code for patrons. The former distinction creates a measure of technical parity with other nightclubs, while the latter reflects the unpretentious attitude characteristic of much of its clientele. 'Few pretentious people come to our events, so our success is not dependent on prestige,' Andrea agrees. 'It's all about fun, so you don't feel intimidated. You don't have to dress to impress.'

Fun appears to be the common denominator within this kind of student entertainment. While there may often be marked differences between the kind of music you'd encounter at Manchester University or at Leeds, this kind of student union offers an assorted range of professional attractions to suit a wide range of tastes.

Matt Williams, entertainments manager at the National Union of Students, believes this phenomenon is set to increase. 'This kind of development is good for the student unions as it often generates much-needed funds, but, more importantly, it often forges links with the local community. The mixture of people that you find at these kind of events always adds to the feel of the gig.'

If you wish to experience entertainment that differs from your usual routine then a student venue may suit your tastes. At the very least, cheap beer and the opportunity to spy on your niece or nephew may be too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

University of Bristol Union, Queens Rd, Clifton, (0272-735 035); Cardiff USU: Park Place, (0222-874 000); King's College London SU: Macadam Building, Surrey St, WC2 (071-836 7132); Leicester Arena (De Montfort USU), Newarke Close, (0802-483 456); Manchester USU: Oxford Road, (061-275 2930); Glasgow Caledonian University, Cowladdens Rd, (041-332 0681); Sheffield USU: Western Bank, (0742- 753 300); Swansea USU: Singleton Park (0792-295 466)

(Photograph omitted)