- Video report by ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies
The number of UK students accepted on to degree courses within the country has fallen to 353,960, down two percent on last year.
Despite this fall, the proportion of A-levels awarded an A or A* grade has hit a six-year high, with more than one in four being awarded top marks.
Thursday's results come amid criticism from teachers over changes made to A-level courses in England, and claims that this year, Clearing is a "buyers' market".
- Why have university applications fallen if students have done so well?
A large part of the reason for the lower number of students accepted onto university courses in the UK, is that there is a much lower number of 18-year-olds in the UK population than in 2017.
The number of 18-year-olds this year is 2.5% lower than last year.
A decrease in the number of mature students applying to university in recent years, due to more students starting undergraduate courses immediately after finishing school or college also contributed, as did a fall in the number of applications to study nursing.
A drop in the number of applications to study nursing follows the Government's 2017 ending of bursaries for nursing and midwifery students.
- How did this year's A-level students fare?
Despite this, the proportion handed the very top result has fallen by 0.3% to 8%, its lowest level since 2013.
Some 26.4% of UK entries were awarded an A or A*, up 0.1 percent on 2017 results, making this year's cohort the highest achievers since 2012.
It is the second year in a row that the A*-A pass rate has risen, but the overall A*-E pass rate is at its lowest level since 2010, falling 0.3% to a 97.6% pass rate.
Boys continue to outperform girls at the highest grades, the figures show, with 26.6% of boys' entries awarded at least an A grade, compared to 26.2% for entries from their female peers.
The statistics also show that STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are continuing to rise in popularity, with 36.2% of all A-level entries were in these subjects, up from 34.5% last year, and 28% in 2009.
- Number of students accepted onto university courses down
Despite the high grades awarded, the number of students accepted onto UK degree courses has fallen to 411,860, down one percent on last year.
Part of the reason behind this decline is that there are around 75,000 less 18-year-olds in the UK population than last year due to a lower birth rate in 2000, and a fall in applications.
Students still seeking university places are said to be being presented with a "buyers' market", with 26,350 courses available in Clearing in England.
- Reformed A-levels criticised
Thursday's results come in the wake of major exam reforms over the last two years which have been widely criticised by teachers.
Amanda Brown, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, argued that changes to subjects are leaving students unable to fully demonstrate what they can do.
“Changing the assessment of A-levels so they focus on high-stakes exams taken at the end of two years of study does not allow students to properly demonstrate their ability and puts them under huge pressure,” she said.
“Coursework and other non-exam assessments are a better way for students to demonstrate their skills, are less of a memory test, and help lower attaining students and those with special educational needs and disabilities show their achievements.”
The changes were also attacked by a senior headteacher, who said the speed at which the changes had been brought in made them "difficult" to implement and put schools and colleges under "immense pressure".
Rachael Warwick, executive headteacher of Didcot Girls' School in Oxfordshire, slammed the Government's move, saying it had left teachers trying to plan courses and write textbooks before specifications had been finalised, as well as coping with a lack of past papers to guide exam preparations.
There were fears that the proportion of top grades could fall due to changes to the exam system, and a major hike in the number of unconditional offers handed out by universities.
However, processes put in place by England’s exams regulator Ofqual ensure that students are not unfairly disadvantaged by the new system and that their results are comparable to those achieved in previous years.
One such move is the altering of grade boundaries, for example, students sitting the reformed OCR advanced Biology A-level only need to get 55% of answers right to be awarded an A.
Responding to criticism over the changes made to A-level courses, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said the changes had been made "after universities told us they were failing to prepare students for higher education.
“Reducing the number of exams students have to sit will give them more time for study and to gain a deeper understanding of the courses they are studying, an essential skill for undergraduate study.
“We know exam season can be a time of heightened emotions for pupils wanting to do their best but while testing has always been an important part of education, it should never be at the expense of a young person’s wellbeing."
- Clearing a 'buyers' market'
For those looking for degree places through Clearing this summer, there are suggestions that they are likely to find it is a "buyers’ market".
As of Wednesday, 26,350 undergraduate courses were available on the Ucas clearing website for students in England, with nine in 10 UK institutions having at at least one course listed in Clearing.
At the same point last year, there were around 27,715 undergraduate courses in total listed on Clearing with potential availability for students in England.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the new Office for Students, said it was important students have both the ability and the support they need to access and succeed on a degree course.
“While universities often allow students in with lower grades than advertised, it is important they do so with the student’s interests at heart,” she told The Times.
Professor Alex Neill, vice-president for education at the University of Southampton said that he expected there to be more students in Clearing this year who have not applied to university through the main application scheme.
“As part of a further trend that’s developed over the last few years, we do expect to see more students in Clearing who haven’t previously applied to university so an increase in the number of people who are, in fact, using Clearing as their entry to university,” he said.
“We have evidence that prospective students are receiving advice not to make a decision or application ‘early’, in the Ucas cycle, but use Clearing as a time when they will still be able to get entry to a high quality university and a high quality course, keeping their options open rather than pinning themselves down early.”
Some courses may lower the grades required to get onto a course in Clearing, potentially making it easier to secure a place.