The expansion of tertiary education is high on the political agenda in the European Union. In this paper we analyse a necessary ingredient for the expansion of tertiary education – the universalisation of upper secondary education – in order to draw lessons for the expansion of the tertiary education by analogy. We examine speed, differentiation and drivers of this universalisation in Germany and compare our findings with the experiences in the Czech and Slovak Republics in order to demonstrate more general trends in educational policies in Europe. We find that the speed of universalisation depends on whether a country is a forerunner or a laggard. General tracks expanded more than vocational tracks; in Germany the two tracks complement one another. Finally we find that conflicting interest groups hampered serious reforms in Germany until the first PISA tests in 2000 placed its students well below the average among OECD countries for literacy and numeracy. Reforms introduced in the last decades, however – driven by internationalisation – are likely to lead to a further expansion of tertiary education both in Germany and in what is today the Slovak and Czech Republics.