Prestigious universities are squeezing out their rivals in the battle for undergraduates, setting a trend that could continue for several years and place some institutions under greater pressure to attract students to secure their funding.

The shift comes as the university admissions clearing house, Ucas, reported that record numbers had been placed on university courses a day after hundreds of thousands of students received their A-level results across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The competition for places has meant that even medical schools – traditionally among the most competitive courses for entry – still had places on offer, and the Ucas website listed places on more than 25,000 undergraduate courses in England.

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Figures released by Ucas show that despite an overall decline in acceptances by UK students, universities that traditionally require higher exam grades are maintaining or even increasing the number of students they admit, thanks to rising numbers of applicants from overseas.

Less selective universities are bearing the brunt of the demographic decline in the number of UK-based school leavers, with a 2% fall in acceptances via Ucas overall translating into fewer prospective undergraduates.“High-tariff” universities have reported placing nearly 139,000 students, a record number that means they now account for a third of all undergraduates studying in the UK.

Lower-tariff institutions have accepted 5,000 fewer undergraduates compared with last year, with the total dropping to 148,000. Acceptances at mid-tariff universities also declined by more than 2,000.

The higher tariff group includes Oxbridge and the Russell Group of research-intensive universities such as University College London and the University of Birmingham, and others with stringent entry requirements.

Ucas said a record 32,430 international students from outside the EU had been accepted this year, with more than 20,000 going to higher-tariff institutions.

The decline in UK undergraduates is the first recorded since 2012, in the aftermath of the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees. This year’s fall, however, is due to a 3% decline in the number of 18-year-olds, and would have been larger but for a rise in the percentage of school leavers going on to higher education.

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The record numbers placed through the clearing process confirms suggestions that this year’s admissions process was a fruitful environment for potential students, with more waiting until the last minute or quickly finding new places after missing out on expected grades.

More than 15,000 applicants have taken up places at UK universities after going through the clearing process, the highest on record and more than three times as many as the same time 10 years ago.

The competition can be seen in the number of universities trying to recruit students by leaving popular courses open so as not to turn away any applicants.

One admissions director said the tactic was to advertise as many courses as possible, even those notionally full, and plan on shifting resources to match where applicants wanted to study.

The Press Association found that 18 of the 24 Russell Group universities were still advertising nearly 3,800 courses through clearing. Overall, 134 institutions were still advertising courses on Friday.

Mark Blakemore, the head of student recruitment at St George’s, University of London, said the medical school was holding interviews on Saturday. “Many students have exceeded the grades that they expected to get and it’s on the back of that that they are calling us,” he said.

The demographic decline among school leavers is forecast to continue until at least 2021, and may be exacerbated by the UK’s exit from the EU, if as expected that leads to fewer EU-based applicants.

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