But the traditional image of professors is changing rapidly, with the emergence of super-academics - better-paid, increasing in number, and more likely to be leading experts in fish processing than the poems of Virgil.
New figures to be published later this year by the Higher Education Statistics Agency will show that Britain now has nearly twice as many professors as it did 20 years ago.
For the first time, the numbers of staff in the old and new universities will be listed together, revealing that there are now 7,000 professors compared with 4,000 in the 1970s.
While there are 6,100 listed in the old universities, comparedwith 3,800 in 1973, the new universities are catching up. More than 1,000 members of their staff are graded above principal lecturer, which is the equivalent of professor.
The impact of the new wave of universities, created from the former polytechnics and colleges, goes far beyond just increasing numbers.
The latest edition of the Commonwealth Universities Year Book, will show that they have widened the traditional area of scholarship well beyond the classical subjects.
There are now professors (starting salary pounds 31,000) in areas as diverse as tourism, physiotherapy, hospitality, leisure, fashion, physical education, marine studies, recreational management, three-dimensional design, sport, marketing, food processing and poetry.
Some departments boast more than one - Plymouth University has six professors in its marine studies department alone.
Overall, London University comes out top with almost 1,200 professors, six times as many as both Cambridge and Oxford.
In the University of Wales, the number of professors has gone up from 218 in 1973 to 320, while the total number of professors in Scotland has risen in the same period from 535 to 820.
There has also been a big increase nationally in sponsored chairs, involving firms of accountants, solicitors, civil engineers, food producers and housebuilders. At Nottingham Trent University, for instance, the Cala Homes Residential Studies Professor is hard at work.
Tony Taylor, holder of the Greater Grimsby Chair of Food Studies at Humberside University, and whose own research area is fish, said the chair reflected the fact that Grimsby was a major food-producing area with some 450 operations including Birds Eye. The town is said to be the world's biggest producer of fish fingers.
Tony Curtis, of the University of Glamorgan, is believed to be the country's only full-time professor of poetry.
He says the procedures for becoming a professor are rigorous: "I had to make a formal application, provide six copies of six of my books, and 11 referees, and it had to be externally moderated."
He went on: " I believe I am the only professor of poetry apart from that one at Oxford which is by election and not a proper job. I've been in the job exactly a year and I run a creative writing course."
Dr Sara Delamont, reader in sociology and acting head of department at the University of Wales, Cardiff, said: "I think it is an important issue that the vast majority of British people do not realise the effects of now having 100 universities rather than 40.
"I don't think people realise what a massive employment sector higher education now is. Most people probably think there are about the same number of professors as there are MPs."
She says the traditional image of professors is reinforced in popular fiction. "The only positive image of a woman professor that any of us could find was Professor Peabody from the Dan Dare script, who was of course a dazzling blonde. Most of the men scientists are portrayed as ineffectual, weird.
"That may be because most modern media creators are actually people who got a 2:2. If they had got a first they would not be the people who write these scripts, and one day they might have become professors."
A selection of odd profs
n Cala Homes Residential Studies Professor, Nottingham Trent University
n Dalgety Professor of Food Science, Reading University
t Midland Bank Professor (small businesses), Kingston University
n The Sir Julian Hodge Professor of Banking,
University of Wales, Cardiff
n Emeritus Professor of Shipping, Plymouth University
n The Greater Grimsby Chair of Food Studies,
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