PROFESSOR Harold Perkin did not mince his words. 'The professions in Britain are in crisis,' he warned his audience of architects, doctors and lawyers. Speaking recently at a Conference on the Professions, held by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the professor was adamant. 'We are being attacked on all sides,' he said, insisting that the public's respect for former pillars of society such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, architects - and professors - has diminished drastically.

According to Perkin: 'Professionals have got their backs against the wall. Many are demoralised - and they've all been savaged in the press in some particularly glaring scandals.' He thinks that the big problem is numbers: there are just too many professionals around. 'When everyone is somebody then no one is anybody. Professional status cannot be shared without being diminished. When professionals were very few, to be a doctor or a lawyer was a great thing. When I first became a professor, it was really something. It meant automatically being in Who's Who.'

Professor Perkin has since decamped to the chair of history and higher education at Northwestern University in Chicago, and has found similar overcrowding in the US. 'Over here, everyone's a professor. It's no great shakes.'

He also blames the crisis on the modern public's readiness to seek redress from professionals who do not come up to scratch. 'People are trigger- happy now - they sue at the drop of a hat.' He believes that professionals are now seen as being motivated by money rather than by principle. 'We need a greater morality. Professionalism is a question of pride in the job.'

Over the past two decades, the number of teachers has increased by 15 per cent, architects by 25 per cent, and GPs by nearly 50 per cent; while the number of practising solicitors has more than doubled.

'Strictly speaking, professionals are those who share their expertise and set their own conditions of entry to their occupation,' explains Nicholas Bagnall, who writes this newspaper's Words column. 'But the word has gradually gone downhill - today it often just means what someone does for a living, like a professional tennis player.'

Not only has being a professional lost its kudos, but walls hung with diplomas are no longer any guarantee of big money or even a safe job. Teachers' pay has risen by only two per cent in real terms over the last 20 years. Many young architects' training remains incomplete as firms cannot give them the practical experience required. The Young Solicitors Group has had to set up a help- line for unemployed lawyers.

Most professionals admit that the reverence they once basked in has become a memory of yester-year. Those who qualified recently are more used to insults.

'There are so many rat and vulture jokes that one can think of,' sighs Geraldine McCool, 32, chairman of the Young Solicitors Group, who practises in Liverpool. 'There is even an American publication called Dead Lawyers and Other Pleasant Thoughts.' Geraldine feels that programmes such as Kinsey which portray a 'radical, sympathetic lawyer' may help the British to a more positive view.

She believes that solicitors have a reputation for being unfairly wealthy. 'The well-to-do image does come across - but we're not privileged, and the public needs to know that.' However, she is keeping a stiff upper lip. 'I actually find the jokes funny - in context.'

John Young, deputy vice- president of the Law Society, who qualified in 1958, says that clients are now prepared to argue with their lawyers. 'Twenty-five years ago a larger proportion of the profession was higher up the social scale. Now people see their solicitor is a person just like them and they do feel they can criticise.'

He thinks the public believe in a thoroughly unfair lawyer stereotype. 'There is a fictional impression that solicitors are distant, as dry as dust, and bad communicators.' He also believes that the spirit of professional altruism lives on. 'Some lawyers, thank god, still have a feeling of defending the oppressed and the rights of man and so on.'

Architects feel particularly sore when they are held responsible for all buildings everywhere. Max Perkins, 33, who runs Blueprint Architects in Frome, remembers his first day as a student of architecture. 'This girl asked me what I was reading. I proudly said 'Architecture', and her boyfriend said 'Aha] What about all those awful Sixties buildings then? Eh? Eh?' I had been doing architecture for all of four hours, and three of those had been spent in the pub.'

He thinks the public should realise that architects now have to get their hands dirty. 'People imagine that I sit around all day elegantly designing buildings. Well, I don't, I spend hours with my head down a manhole or climbing up scaffolding. You can't be a gentleman architect any more.'

Dr Francis Duffy, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who qualified nearly 30 years ago, reports that architects are chastened. 'Hard times have forced us to do some tough thinking. We have got over the resonance of Prince Charles's attack but we have realised that no-one owes us a living.' He believes that architects became complacent in the 60s and 70s, when most were government-employed and work was plentiful. 'In the 80s there was a fundamental deterioration in the architect's ethical position. People felt this gang were not on their side.' He adds ruefully, 'My generation thought we were on the planet to make things better for everyone else.'

Angela, 26, is a teacher in a Birmingham comprehensive. 'When I tell people that I'm a teacher, they say 'Oh, poor you]' ' she says. 'People feel sorry for you. Attitudes have definitely changed, even since I was at school myself. Parents now support the child over the teacher, even if the kid has done something obviously wrong like beating someone up. There are arguments and confrontations.'

She thinks that teachers are completely undervalued. 'People think that teachers take their jobs because they get great holidays. I've been working till 10 at night for weeks. I didn't want a job that's a moneymaking job, I wanted to put something in to society, but people don't appreciate what we do. And the teacher appraisal scheme totally demoralises us - it tells us we're not good enough professionals.'

Young teachers in particular are distressed by criticism of competence and standards of discipline, according to George Whisken, headmaster of Westward High School in Leek, who has been a teacher for 35 years. He believes their feelings are being hurt unnecessarily.

'There is no evidence that standards are any lower today. I recall appallingly bad teaching 30 years ago - incompetence that would never be accepted today. Teachers have always been in the front line of aggressive parents. I remember an incident in Hull 25 years ago when a parent came in and knocked a teacher about. Such criticism is demoralising and I'm sorry there is such a degree of knocking.'

Medics also find themselves on the front line. 'People question your decisions and ask about alternative treatments,' says Maria, 26, a doctor. 'The image of the infallible doctor has been severely dented. When I tell people I'm a doctor they usually look at me with surprise - because I'm female, because I look younger than my age - they're scumbags, horrible people] Respect is something that has to be earned, though. If people respect my certificate, that doesn't mean very much - if they respect me, that's different.'

Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the British Medical Association's general medical services' committee,has spent 31 years in the Liverpool practice run by his father and grandfather before him. 'In the past there was too much 'doctor-knows-best' - if the doctor said something, the patient tugged his forelock and away he went. But the pendulum has swung too far.

'It is rare in my practice, as in most, that a day goes by without a patient demanding service with threats and bad language. Attitudes have changed, particularly among those who have grown up with the National Health Service. Politicians have led patients to expect something that is not deliverable, and this leads to tensions and disagreements and morale problems among doctors.'

Dr Bogle thinks that public criticism is excessive. 'What is well done is ignored; it's easy to criticise the whole profession for one mistake. This is very difficult for my colleagues. Underneath, we are a sensitive profession. We are very much hurt by unreasonable, demanding patients and by reports that suggest that the whole profession is doing a bad job.'

Amid all this professional wailing and gnashing of teeth, however, the Institute of Managers remains remarkably upbeat. Claire Austin, their communications manager, chirps: 'Managers are seen in a far better light than the professionals. And since we have brought in diplomas and MBAs there is a big wave of seeing managers as proper professionals. Society as a whole doesn't respect anyone like it used to - look at the monarchy and the Church] But managers are on the way up.'

She airily dismisses the idea that many managers are overpaid. 'It's all very well to pay people a vast sum as long as it is profit-related. We would like to see everyone with profit related pay. And managers have to be open to risks to get the rewards. Graham Taylor's just been sacked,' she points out.

Claire thinks managers' status is rising because they are not shrouded in professional mystique. 'Whatever your age, whatever you do, you have to manage. Managers get respect today because everyone can relate to them.'

However, managers need not feel too smug about their new-found status - in fact, they too may be disappearing down a slippery slope. Plymouth City Council recently abolished the term. It is 'hopelessly bureaucratic and heirarchical,' according to council leader John Ingham, who is replacing managers with Team Leaders.

They may have some way to go before meeting the sorry fate of the professionals. As Bagnall points out: 'Nowadays the word professional can even have disreputable connotations. We say professional thief, professional con-man, professional beggar - even professional piss-artist.'

(Photograph omitted)