Record intake for universities
Record numbers of students are heading to university this year, it has been revealed, as new figures showed that the A-level pass-rate has fallen for the first time in more than 30 years.
Almost 400,000 undergraduates have already been accepted on to degree courses, with thousands of places still available, particularly for those with top grades.
For the first time this year, the total number of people going to university could top half a million, Ucas said.
It came as national A-level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland showed that 98% of exams scored at least an E this summer, down by 0.1 percentage points - the first time it has fallen in 32 years.
Just over one in four (26%) of exams were awarded an A* or A grade, down 0.3 percentage points on last summer.
But the proportion of A* grades rose to 8.2%, up 0.6 percentage points on 2013.
Exam board bosses said the decline in pass-rates could be fuelled by more students deciding to take "facilitating subjects" - traditional subjects often favoured by top universities - even if they are less likely to perform well in them.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, said: "There is that slight shift towards facilitating subjects, and that we think can have an impact. The students choosing to do some of the facilitating subjects in the past may have taken one of the other subjects."
These students may find that, for them, the facilitating subject they have chosen is harder.
An open letter published by the exam boards warned it was "quite probable" that the drop in pass-rates below A* was down to students picking traditional subjects, when they have made different choices in the past.
"If these students have found a particular facilitating subject more challenging than their peers, it may have depressed overall outcomes at grade A and also at B."
For the first time this year, A-level students have been able to take exams only in the summer, after the January exam session was scrapped, leaving fewer opportunities for them to re-sit papers.
This move has given students more time for studying, Mr Hall suggested, adding that perhaps those students who were "comfortably getting an A with the re-sit opportunities, a few more will have stretched to get that A*".
The top grade is also becoming more important to universities, and therefore to students seeking degree places.
OCR chief executive Mark Dawe said few universities asked for the A* grade when it was first introduced in 2010, but increasing numbers are now doing so.
"Again, we think there's been this increasing trend of students reaching to get the A* because they now need it," Mr Dawe said.
A Department for Education spokesman insisted that the drop in the A*-E passrate was "insignificant".
The results showed:
:: Boys outperformed girls at A* grade for the third year running, with 8.5% of boys' entries attaining the top mark, compared with 7.9% of the girls, according to the official data, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).
:: An increasing number of students are choosing science, with the number electing to study biology, chemistry and physics rising by 2%, while those taking maths has gone up by 0.9% and further maths by 1.5%. These are all facilitating subjects.
:: The number studying English - also a facilitating subject - has gone down by 4.6%, a fall that is likely to be down to the GCSE English grade controversy two years ago.
:: Even greater decreases were seen in non-facilitating subjects such as political studies - down 10.6%, general studies, which has dropped by 24.3%, and critical thinking, down 46.6%.
:: Soaring numbers of students are doing the extended project - a qualification that allows a candidate to study a topic in depth. Around 33,200 were entered for the qualification this summer, up from 5,100 in 2009.
:: Languages saw another slump, with the numbers taking French down from 11,272 last year to 10,433 this year - a drop of 7.4% - while German has declined 4,242 to 4,187, representing a 1.2% fall.
Separate figures show that record numbers of people are signing up for university this year.
Ucas statistics show that, as of midnight, 396,990 undergraduates had places confirmed at UK universities, up 3% on last year, and 352,590 have won a place on their first choice of course, up 2% on 2013.
M ore places are available to would-be students than ever before this year, with around 35,000 courses on offer in clearing today. Many of these are aimed at students with top grades.
Under a new system, there is now no limit on the numbers of students with an A and two B grades at A-level that universities can recruit, allowing them to offer last-minute places to youngsters meeting this threshold. The Government has also made 30,000 more places available.
A snapshot survey of the Ucas clearing website taken this afternoon by the Press Association found 19 Russell Group universities, considered among the best in the country, were collectively advertising spaces for English students on around 3,600 courses, mainly for youngsters with top grades.
Russell Group director-general Dr Wendy Piatt said: "Some Russell Group universities may have more places to offer through clearing to well-qualified students who have narrowly missed out on their first choice."
Nick Foskett, vice-chancellor of Keele University, said: "As predicted, this year we have seen the role of the clearing system continue to change. An increase in spaces at universities for 2014/15 means more students have been accepted into their first choice, even if they have missed their target by the odd grade. Many universities have been keen to accept students that may have been rejected in previous years, to help assist their plans for growth and expand student numbers."
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, told BBC's Newsnight that 50,000 more young women than young men received higher education places following the results.
She said: "Young women out-perform young men right through the schools system so surely the potential of young men is somehow being let down through that system, and of course we see it in university admissions.
"We want to see more young men coming through the system to balance it out, not least because there's probably a better university experience if there's more of a sex balance on campus."
She said there was a "huge imbalance" in the number of men going into teaching, adding she would favour work to attract them into that potential career.