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 per cent 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 per cent) 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 per cent, 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.

Mr Dawe said: “Again, we think there’s been this increasing trend of students reaching to get the A* because they now need it.”

A Department for Education spokesman insisted that the drop in the A*-E pass rate was “insignificant”.

The results showed: l Boys outperformed girls at A* grade for the third year running, with 8.5 per cent of boys’ entries attaining the top mark, compared with 7.9 per cent of the girls, according to the official data, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).

l An increasing number of students are choosing science, with the number electing to study biology, chemistry and physics rising by 2 per cent, while those taking maths has gone up by 0.9 per cent and further maths by 1.5 per cent. These are all facilitating subjects.

l The number studying English —also a facilitating subject — has gone down by 4.6 per cent, a fall that is likely to be down to the GCSE English grade controversy two years ago.

l Even greater decreases were seen in non-facilitating subjects such as political studies — down 10.6 per cent, general studies, which has dropped by 24.3 per cent, and critical thinking, down 46.6 per cent.

l 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.

l Languages saw another slump, in numbers of students taking French and German.

Ucas statistics show that, as of midnight, 396,990 undergraduates had places confirmed at UK universities, up 3 per cent on last year, and 352,590 have won a place on their first choice of course, up 2 per cent on 2013.