If you want to get ahead, get a specialism. With tough economic times ahead, more business schools are getting creative with their resources and offering niche MBAs to attract new students. And there can be few narrower niches than the programme set up by the International Space University (ISU) to offer management training to those in the space industry – you need seven years' experience of the industry to apply.

The executive course runs modules in Strasbourg, Colorado, Washington, DC and on the Isle of Man, and while most of its first dozen students are engineers or scientists, others have a finance or marketing background (see below).

"It was set up because of alumni demand," Professor Walter Peeters, dean of the ISU in Strasbourg, says. "The space sector used to run on public money and do what the government said, but since the 1970s and 1980s it has become more commercial, and engineers find they need to know all those funny words that they didn't learn in physics."

The course covers traditional MBA ground, but with everything pinned to the space industry. "We aren't marketing to customers; our work is business-to-business, we're very hi-tech and we have our own slang and habits. Also, if we launch something and there's a problem, we can't get it back to put it right! Our project management has to mean zero fault-tolerance."

Only slightly more down-to-earth is the aviation MBA starting in September at Brunel Business School. The school is 10 minutes from Heathrow and has already run courses for the industry. "We've had a lot of interest from the Far East, and from regional aviation bodies, airlines and consultants," says Professor Amir Sharif, the director of MBA programmes, who has himself worked in aerospace. "There is definitely an appetite for management development in this industry."

Brunel also runs a specialist healthcare MBA, built on the back of the university's history of research into health care, which has attracted interest from the Gulf states and South-east Asia. Former student Divya Gupta, 30, is an occupational therapist who gained her MBA last December and is now in charge of the primary care of cancer patients in Hertfordshire, Luton and south Bedfordshire. She says that, although she had previous management experience, "this was a proper qualification" which helped get her the job.

"Everyone wants to get away from that cookie-cutter mentality that says: 'Oh, if you've done an MBA, you must have done this'," Sharif says. "Specialist MBAs are taking that one step further – although they are still MBAs."

Professor Bob Berry, the director of MBA programmes at Nottingham University Business School, says that, for his school, themed MBAs are all about taking a longer-term view and building on the university's strengths. Its specialist MBA in corporate social responsibility is a world leader, while an entrepreneurship specialism is aimed at people starting out on a second career. "And our finance specialism is definitely meeting a big need – the world has far too few managers who understand finance." Specialist students take seven core modules, and three specialist options. "But it is always a tricky balance. You have to offer a generalist MBA and put it in a specialist context."

Nigel Banister, the chief global officer of Manchester Business School (MBS), agrees. MBS has just reorganised its part-time MBA programmes into one Manchester Global MBA, with specialisms in construction, finance, engineering and sports events. Some 3,000 students outside the UK are on the programme.

"Our MBA still prepares people for general management, but students have 30 to 40 per cent leeway to tailor their courses around electives. There has been a great growth in part-time study, and people are often sponsored by their companies, so if they can follow a tailored course then companies can get a faster return on their money. Also, part-time students are often older, they are happy working in the sector they are in, and they just want to study further so it will be helpful to their career."

Specialisms can be taken further, he says. "But there can come a point where a course gets tailored to such an extent that it is not an MBA any more. If you make it too narrow, it just won't work."

The Cambridge Judge Business School has also seen wisdom in offering more specialisation, and this year it reorganised its one-year MBA into eight "concentrations", which allow students to focus on areas from the not-for-profit sector to health care or international business.

"This is a 50 per cent increase in our elective offerings," says Jochen Runde, the director of the MBA. "We are doing it because we aim to capture more of our first-choice candidates and because we can draw on the expertise of the wider university."

And the strategy is already attracting new talent. A French horn player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a ballet dancer from Amsterdam have applied to Judge specifically because one "concentration" is now to study arts and cultural management.

'I couldn't believe it - I was surrounded by space!'

Carla Sharpe, 36, a South African, is one of the first students on the International Space University's (ISU) executive MBA.

"I was a finance officer with a hotel development company, but always interested in space, so when I read that the South African government was starting up a space agency, I got on the phone and hunted down the details and then I took a space technology course at the University of Cape Town.

Then I started the Foundation for Space Development for outreach and education – you can use space for so much – finding land mines, water purification. We all rely on space every single day.

The ISU course was expensive, but my professor said it was the only way to go, so I applied and was accepted. In the first two weeks, I couldn't believe it – I was surrounded by space! We've done modules in Strasbourg, the Isle of Man and America. We've met an astronaut and had a tour round Lockheed – it's been mind-blowing and it's changed my life and my businesses.

I'm a single mother and I've moved with my son to the Isle of Man to do this, and already had the opportunity to run workshops and courses. This is an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year and I want to help bridge the gap between the engineers and the finance and marketing."