People go to college to get a degree, but not to spend all their time in the library. Your parents may have been happy to drink beer while dancing to The Monkees in a packed gym hall, but modern students are more discerning. They want to drink cheap beer too, but in attractive surroundings, with modern music, played by happening DJs, in venues that resemble nightclubs. Student unions (SUs) have changed dramatically over the past decade to meet the demand.

"In the past, students were happy to socialise anywhere as long as the beer was cheap," says Leslie Dixon, general manager of University of North London Students Union (UNLSU). "Now students also want quality. If necessary, they will pay more elsewhere and drink less, rather that spend their time in a shabby union bar."

UNLSU owns the Rocket, a two-storey space with a capacity of 1,000 on Holloway Road. While boasting a strong non-student following in search of an unpretentious atmosphere, vibrant social intercourse and cheap drinks, it remains mindful of the responsibility to cater for its own 12,000 students. As with many SUs, the key is to strike an effective balance between external promotions and student activities.

Meanwhile, the University of London Union (ULU) has spent around pounds 350,000 refurbishing its main venue, Room 101. "There are a variety of demands on the hall itself," explains Jill Gibbons, ULU's deputy general manager. "We have a public entertainments licence for every night of the week, but we have to balance that against the university's many clubs and societies that wish to use the venue."

ULU's main student event is Beano on Saturday night. At pounds 2 before 11pm it's a fraction of the price charged by many of London's so-called "real" clubs.

Student events have increased in popularity precisely because they do not attempt to mimick the established nightclubs, instead adding their own brand of revelry to the equation. King's College London Student Union successfully runs a Friday night event for its members while attracting a non-student crowd for Saturdays at their Tutu's venue (named after Desmond Tutu). Tutu's is equipped with a pair of Technics, a CD-mixer and enough sounds and lights to send you into raptures.

Many DJs get their first break at college, so the music is usually fresh and up-to-date. Student venues also book the top DJs: Paul Oakenfold, Paul "Trouble" Anderson and Tim Westwood have all played at Tutu's in the recent past.

"Money is tight, so unions are in the business of providing good services at affordable prices," says Leslie Dixon. UNLSU's new Friday night event, Zest! plays housey rhythms from 10pm-3am and costs just pounds 3 with a flyer.

Many SUs have turnovers well in excess of pounds 1m and the quality of the entertainment programmes reflects a new-found business acumen. Most employ full-time events managers as well as security to ensure events are varied and safe. It is the enlightened approach of SUs, including, for example, women's safe transport back to halls of residences, that make the difference.

All in all, SUs are a perfect way to ease yourself into a nocturnal existence - no dress codes, no pretensions and no hassle - unless you have to write a couple of essays over the weekend.