A record 26.7 per cent of A-level entrants have been awarded A grades today, adding pressure on university places.
Universities have seen a rise of 60,000 more applicants than there were last year as the overall pass rate also increased 0.3 percentage points to reach 97.5 per cent. It is the 27th year in a row that the qualification has observed an increase in performance.
"We are turning away candidates with not just three As but four As," warned Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of research intensive universities, in an interview with the Today programme on BBC Radio Four.
Diana Warwick, the chief executive of Universities UK, which represents executive heads of UK universities, said: "Although it's not new to see intense competition for places during clearing, we know things will be tighter over the coming days due to the large number of applicants for university places this year.
"All those who achieve the grades asked for in their offers will be guaranteed places, as always, and we congratulate this year's A-level candidates on the successful outcome of all their hard work.
"Universities are experienced in handling high numbers of applications and they have been preparing for this peak time for many months now, along with Ucas."
However, the Further Education sector has defended the system, and pointed to the rising improvement of grades as an example of its success over the years.
Toni Fazaeli, the chief executive of teaching body Institute for Learning (IfL), said, "Each year, some ask whether standards are the same as they used to be. I wonder whether running is easier than it used to be? Hearing Roger Bannister this week compare his world-record-smashing four-minute mile with the awesome speed of today’s Usain Bolt, there was no reference to the mile being shorter nowadays or the standards expected declining. However, there was much talk about improvements in the standard of sports coaching and preparation by athletes.
"This is comparable to the powerful story behind the regular improvement in A-level results. Teachers continuously hone their dual professionalism – their expertise in their subject and in their teaching methods. They learn from research about what works in teaching and learning, identifying their learners’ different needs and responding, as well as keeping up to date with latest developments in using new technologies to aid learning.
"IfL expects all teachers to carry out at least 30 hours of continuing professional development (CPD) a year. A hallmark of any professional – a doctor or engineer, for example – is their ongoing commitment to CPD. FE professional teachers stand proud alongside other professions. And like all good coaches and teachers, teachers in FE relentlessly motivate their learners to ‘go that extra mile’ and do their personal best.
"We should be proud as a nation that the aspirations of our young people and adults taking A levels, and their teachers, continue to rise. A modern and competitive knowledge-based economy depends on this. Teachers and learners deserve our recognition, not our scepticism.
Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, agreed A-level results should be celebrated and not subjected to "well worn claims" that the questions and marking systems are getting easier.
Mr Streeting said: "Those who continue to devalue the achievements of A-level students repeatedly fail to recognise that the year-on-year rise in standards has come about because of hard work on the part of the students and their teachers. We should be congratulating them, not cynically undermining their achievements."
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber added: "While competition for university places is fierce and the jobs climate is its toughest for decades, young people must not get too disheartened – there are still jobs out there and courses available through clearing.
"The Government can help all young people by providing extra funding for university places, by encouraging more employers to take on apprentices and by tackling unemployment as its number one priority."
(Pictured: Toni Fazaeli, IfL chief executive)