About 250,000 candidates in England, Northern Ireland and Wales received their results today, with 8.2 per cent of grades awarded at A*, up from 8.1 per cent last year when the new grade was introduced.
The A* grade requires marks over 90 per cent in a candidate's second-year exams.
The proportion of grades A or A* stayed the same, at per cent – the first time the figure for an A has stayed constant since 1997.
Boys closed the gap with girls at A*. Some 8.2 per cent of boys' entries achieved an A* this year, up from 7.9 per cent in 2010. Girls' performance dropped slightly to 8.2 per cent from 8.3 per cent last year. Boys are also closing the gap in maths and science.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said that, as of midnight, 384,649 applicants had been accepted by universities, up from 379,411 at the same point last year.
The total number of applicants this year was 681,593, up from 673,098 in 2010.
Last year about 47,000 places were allocated through the clearing process, with many have predicted an unprecedented scramble for places as students seek to avoid the trebling of the university tuition fee cap in 2012.
Meanwhile, there were increases in the number of A-level entries for science and maths.
Biology was up 7.2 per cent, chemistry 9.2 per cent, physics 6.1 per cent and maths/further maths 7.4 per cent.
This means entries for maths are now up 40.2 per cent over five years, physics 19.6 per cent over five years and chemistry 19.4 per cent over the same period. English remained the most popular subject accounting for just over one in 10 entries.
The increase was welcomed by Dame Athene Donald, chair of the Royal Society Education Committee.
But she added: “Whilst it is encouraging to see the numbers of students taking science and mathematics A levels increasing, the numbers are still far too low to meet the needs of both business and education.
“We believe an overhaul of A levels may be needed to enable students to study a greater breadth of subjects, including science and maths, such as occurs with Scottish Highers.”
While science and maths saw gains, traditional modern foreign languages continue to decline.
Entries for Spanish are down 0.2 per cent, halting a year on year increase since 2002. French and German continue their downward trend, with entries falling 4.7 per cent and 6.9 per cent respectively.
Commenting on today’s results, Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said: “With youth unemployment once again pushing one million, now is not the time for limits on university places, nor for the disastrous combination of education funding cuts and tuition fee rises which have created a perfect storm for a generation of young people.”
David Willetts, the universities minister, said that for those who did not secure a university place, “it is worth looking at the other options including studying part time, with other organisations offering degrees, or looking for an apprenticeship. You can also choose to reapply next year.”