Go Higher: Scotland and Northern Ireland - The main attraction

The best student unions easily win out over local clubs, pubs and eateries. By Craig Reece
Given their proximity to lecture theatres, plus their well-established cheap drinks prices, promotions and long opening hours, student unions are always a popular choice for students, although the size, quality and popularity of unions varies dramatically from place to place. At St Andrews, the union is a major social player in the area, offering some of the best choice in affordable eating, drinking and entertainment.

The most successful unions today are those who attract not only their own students, but also those from other institutions and the public in general. Increasingly, student entertainment has been drawn towards local clubs and bars which compete fiercely for the student trade. For this reason, offers and promotions are in abundance which can only be good news for those mindful of their financial situation.

Among the best of the unions are Queen's in Belfast with its regular night Shine!, run by local boy David Holmes, which attracts big-name DJs on a regular basis. Another union with a swiftly growing reputation is Edinburgh University's Teviot Row. They have regular club nights with the likes of the legendary Cream, Colours and Back 2 Basics.

Glasgow's hippest student hangout is the School of Art Students Association, still apparently in a Sixties-esque heyday - with sounds to match in the downstairs bar - and hosting a very broad range of gigs, club nights and one-off events.

Other unions in Glasgow include Strathclyde Students Association, which has a plethora of floors, bars and facilities, but offers little in the way of ground-breaking entertainment aside from a local band night.

Glasgow University is blessed with two unions. The Queen Margaret Union used to play host to gigs by the likes of Nirvana, Teenage Fanclub and Therapy?, but this has fallen away in recent years. The present administration promises better things for the future though. The GUU is something of a bastion of the gentleman's network with debating, drinking games and rugby taking precedence.

One development which has had a major impact on the unions' ability to provide entertainment has been the monopolisation of gigs by larger promotions companies, often with strong links to venues. They are not so keen to promote concerts where only students and signed guests are admitted, and so are less likely to opt for student venues. Aberdeen, Robert Gordon and Dundee universities have all suffered as a result of this change, and have sometimes found themselves marginalised as a result.

These days unions have had to offer other reasons for student custom. They've branched out into catering - especially for the large numbers of vegetarian students today. Many unions are well known for their eateries - with Aberdeen and Ulster being among the best respected - and usually have a dining room or canteen, bolstered by one or two cafes.

Nowadays most unions have shops - both their own and those run by outside companies - which offer generous student discounts. Banks, insurance companies and travel agents such as usitCAMPUS and STA have branches which offer the best in student deals.

There is no end to the other facilities. Many offer laundry, showers and TV lounges for those lacking them in their accommodation, plus study rooms and pool/games rooms.

More than anything else student unions are places for information about student life and problems, and a place to meet your peers, eat, drink and dance cheaply. Not bad for one building, and never too far away.